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Gangnam Korean Restaurant

New Korean hot spot brings banchan to the Bench

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Banchan, or "side dishes," are an essential component of any Korean meal. The small plates boast everything from squiggly japchae to spicy kimchi to savory pancakes, and they're set in the middle of the table to share. Like any good Korean joint, Gangnam doesn't skimp on the banchan.

Gangnam Korean Restaurant (303 N. Orchard St.) opened at the end of June in the space that formerly housed Wasabi Japanese Cuisine. Gangnam has the same layout and owners as Wasabi—Sukie and Hee Cheong—but a new Korean chef: Sukie's sister, Helena Jeong.

On a recent visit, my date and I ordered a few main dishes to share. As we closed our menus, an assortment of vibrant banchan appeared: Two types of kimchi—a fiery Napa cabbage variety that had been aging since May and a cucumber version; a thin scallion pancake; marinated bean sprouts; japchae (glass noodles with vegetables in sauce) with carrots and spinach; broccoli in a slightly sweet, salty sauce; and a warm bowl of soupy black soybeans.

While sampling the spread fanned out in front of us, the familiar notes of a live saxophone began echoing from an adjacent room, playing Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight." I knew then this meal would be awesome.

The first dish to arrive was a stainless steel bowl of bibimbap ($11), which is rice topped with neat piles of veggies, ground meat and a raw egg. In the past, I've had bibimbap served in a blistering hot stone bowl that crisps the rice and cooks the egg as it sits. This version was cold, but the flavors and textures were right on. Silky bean sprouts played off earthy shiitake mushrooms, while sesame oil-licked spinach complimented chewy strands of gosari, or bracken fern stems. Walnuts added a nice crunch and a heap of gochujang, or Korean pepper paste, lent the dish a pervasive smoky flavor.

Unlike the bibimbap, the soondubu (soft tofu) soup ($11) was extremely hot, both temperature- and spice-wise, and not much of a looker. Clumps of soft white tofu and wisps of egg white swirled around in an oily red broth that concealed green-lipped mussels, shell-on shrimp, tiny scallops and bits of pork. Grains of white rice added a hearty texture to the soup, which I enjoyed much more than I expected at first glance.

The show-stealer was the grilled trout ($13), scattered with a blanket of green onions and hot-pepper coins. Though the fish had plenty of tiny bones to contend with, the moist, flaky meat bathed in a lightly sweet and spicy sauce more than made up for the extra extraction efforts.

Gangnam still offers a few Japanese options on its menu, like tonkotsu ramen, teriyaki salmon bento and tempura veggies. But I plan to stick with the spot's unique Korean fare and get my Japanese fix when Wasabi reopens at 2325 S. Apple St., in the former Noodle Korea space.

Gangnam Korean Restaurant

303 N. Orchard St., 208-323-882, gangnamboise.com