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The Ann Arbor News - Bewon Korean Cuisine: stone bowls and red hot pepper appeal in winter. by Kim B

Looking at CNN's list of their readerss choices of the world's 50 most delicious foods for 2011, I noted the popularity of several Korean foods: Bibimbap was listed at number 40, bulgogi was number 23, and kimchi, the spicy fermented pickle sometimes called Korea's favorite food, was number 12. Internationally. With more than 35,000 participants voting.

Your mileage may differ, but CNN's readers apparently prefer those Korean foods to Canada's maple syrup at number 46, and Italy's fettucine alfredo and Parma ham at 47 and 48 respectively. Korean food is popular in Ann Arbor too; the restaurant guide lists 19 establishments serving it. Whether you're a novice or an aficionado, among the best places in town to try delicious Korean dishes is Bewon Korean Cuisine on Ann Arbor's northeast side.

Speaking of kimchi, David Klingenberger, local purveyor of The Brinery sauerkraut and fermented foods, makes at least three different kinds of kimchi locally. As he was learning the art of kimchi-making from a Korean friend he asked, "How many different kinds of kimchi are there?" The friend's reply was, "How many Korean grandmothers are there?"

It's a story that points out the importance of family recipes and the unique qualities that individuals bring to their food traditions. A handmade, family run quality and attention to detail are among my favorite things about Bewon Korean Cuisine where (co-owner) Mrs. Jin does most of the cooking.

There are two reasons that Korean food is especially appealing in the winter: stone bowls and red hot pepper. Bewon uses both to advantage. They use the stone bowls (called dol sat) for their dol sat bi bim bap, and for their extensive list of stews.

Although there are plenty of dishes with no heat at all, Korean cuisine has a well-deserved reputation for being spicier than average. Many dishes incorporate red pepper sauce as an integral component. Some (like bi bim bap) let you customize the level of heat with spicy sweet gochujang sauce on the side.

Part of the fun of ordering bi bim bap (one of the best-known Korean dishes in the U.S., and a good starting point for beginners) is customizing it. This large bowl of rice (bap), topped with small heaps of seasoned meat and colorful vegetables, usually arrives with a fried egg (which Bewon refers to as a "sunshine egg") in the middle and a red squeeze bottle of gochujang to create the right level of peppery heat. The "bi bim" part of bi bim bap refers to the mixing the diner is expected to do to stir it all together.

Dol sat bi bim bap is all that, and a red hot stone bowl. The heat of the bowl further cooks the rice to create a crunchy crust, the best part, pried off with chopsticks as the diner reaches the bottom of the bowl.

Bewon's bi bim bap comes with matchstick carrots, bean sprouts, sweet and sour cucumber, zucchini, soy marinated beef, and sesame-dressed spinach. The mixture is something like a deluxe fried rice, with all the flavors represented — sweet (carrots), salty (spinach), tart (cucumber), spicy (gochujang), and umami (beef). The rice is nicely chewy, held together by the richness of the egg yolk. The dol sat version adds welcome crunch with the rice crust.

Another stone bowl specialty I particularly enjoy is Bewon's kimchi stew, or kim chi chi ge. Like all their stews, it is served with a side dish of fresh sticky rice, unusual for including some purple grains (of black rice) that they call wild rice.

The coldest, darkest days of winter are the best days for kimchi stew at Bewon. It arrives in a cloud of steam, boiling hot in a heavy stone bowl and red like the setting winter sun. Floating in the spicy broth are chunks of mild soft tofu, crunchy tart kimchi, a few pork slices, green onion and zucchini slices. The heat from the red pepper and the steam-wrapped aesthetic of this dish make me feel ready for the Iditarod, even if I'm only actually going to shovel the driveway.

Bewon has separate lists on its menu for stew, meat stew and seafood stew. Some are available with vegetarian options. Several have unusual ingredients like beef dumplings and rice cakes, or dates (which I believe are actually jujubes).

One stew that our server highly recommended as their best and his favorite (even though he called himself a health nut) is what he called their "Garbage Stew" or Bu Dae Jji Ge. This stew includes hotdogs and spam, along with kimchi, beef and ramen noodles. I'm planning to try it next time I'm feeling adventurous.

Instead, we ordered the seng sun chi gae, a seafood stew with ocean perch. It included large chunks of mild fish fillets, green onion and a little zucchini. The fish was well cooked, flavorful and tender, and the broth was peppery hot with a mild fish taste. I was a little surprised that the main flavors seemed to be only spicy and fishy, but then again I don't go to a Korean restaurant for delicate nuance.

We also tried the triple bul ko gi, a combination plate (only offered at dinner) including three separate specialities: soy and garlic marinated bul ko gi beef; spicy dak bokeum, chicken thigh meat with chunks of green pepper, onion and carrot; and day jee bul ko gi, peppery sliced pork with matchsticks of onion, sweet red pepper, and green onion. It arrived dramatically, sizzling on a cast iron skillet.

I enjoyed the three-fer of the combination plate, and would order the chicken or pork dishes on their own again. But Bewon's version of bul ko gi is not their greatest strength. The menu says that it is charbroiled ribeye, but it tastes and appears to be closer to pan-stewed than charbroiled.

On the other hand, Bewon's banchan, small shared side dishes, are superior. When they appear after your server takes your order, they seem almost enough for a meal on their own. The banchan selection includes six small separate bowls for refreshing sweet and sour daikon white radish pickle, finely shredded green sea vegetable with a sesame dressing, small rectangles of savory egg and vegetable pancake, chunks of potato in a slightly sweet soy glaze, and two kinds of spicy kimchi.

Other starters that we enjoyed are the hae mul pa juhn, a seafood pancake filled with tender squid, small batons of carrot and onion, and slivers of green onion. Savory and crisp, almost like tempura with the ingredients barely held together in a light eggy batter, one pancake covered a dinner plate and came with a light soy sauce dressing on the side. It would have been almost enough for dinner by itself.

For something a little different, I enjoyed the duk bok ki, mild chewy rice cakes in a slightly spicy and sweet red "chef's special sauce" with bits of green onion.

Inside Bewon, the walls painted with a garden scene are a bit dated. But the restaurant is spotlessly clean, and the owners have been present at every meal I have eaten there.

One of the last times I was there, Mr. Jin told me that on his first night in the U.S. he stayed at the hotel across the street from the restaurant, and the first meal he ate in this country was in the seat in which I was sitting. He explained that one year after that first meal, he bought the restaurant and has run it for the past six years. He said he doesn't ever plan to leave.

The location in the mall at the corner of Plymouth and Green is out of the way, but definitely worth seeking out for a very tasty lunch. And they do offer carryout at both lunch and dinner time.

The service at Bewon has been attentive and friendly every time I have been there, with full explanation of any questions I have had. The tidy and serene atmosphere is enhanced by classical music playing in the evening, but on our last visit was marred by loud mechanical noises coming from the kitchen.

Still, their careful attention to detail, and the kimchi stew alone will keep me coming back. And I plan to get up the courage to try the "Garbage Stew" with spam, hotdogs, kimchi, beef, and ramen noodles before 2012 is out. I don't know whether Mrs. Jin is a grandmother or not, but her style of cooking hits the spot for me.

Posted by Kim Bayer on Wed, Feb 15, 2012 : 5:54 a.m.

Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.


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