Sigh. How else does one sigh in a blog except to write, “Sigh”? So, there you go: SIGH.
Stone Korean Kitchen
Despite my belief — no, my absolute conviction that good Korean food and San Francisco can’t seem to co-exist (and this is one time I’d be happy to proven wrong), I continue to try places when they pop up. The non-Koreans, and even some desperate Koreans, continue to go to these places thinking it’s better than having no Korean food and incessantly let me know, “There’s a new Korean restaurant, Grace!” — but I’m not them. I can cook, and worst case, I will have patience and wait to get to LA to eat, or plan an hour’s drive to Santa Clara to get some real Korean food.
But you can’t really knock a place until you’ve actually tried it, so one evening a couple of weeks ago, I went to Stone Korean Kitchen on Embarcadero.
The place looks spankin’ new and has a really pleasant vibe to it. With a few Asian flairs that remind you it’s a Korean restaurant, Stone Korean Kitchen otherwise looks like a modern and hip joint, and I imagine it’s quite attractive, at least in design, to the people working in the Embarcadero buildings looking for lunch.
The place only had three tables filled at 8 PM on a weeknight, so we were seated immediately after being greeted by a young Korean man at the front.
All in all – up to this point, I really enjoyed the vibe of the place and the service was adequately friendly and hip at Stone Korean Kitchen.
Things were about to go downhill, inevitably and unfortunately.
Perusing the menu, I immediately noted that some dishes were going for a “fusion-esque” spin. I’ve never been one to be for or against that — so long as the integrity of the original dish is maintained while putting a unique spin on it. Who am I to argue with good taste, no matter which cuisines you mix together?
Given its prime location on Embarcadero, basically looking at the Bay Bridge, the slightly higher pricing for food at Stone Korean Kitchen wasn’t surprising. Unfortunately, I don’t believe in paying $12 for kimchee jjigae (깅치 찌개) and I don’t come to these types of restaurants to try their kalbi (갈비) or other marinaded meat that I believe should be grilled tabletop. (The prices for these “grilled in kitchen” meats were considerably less than other Korean restaurants; $16 vs. the regularly $24-26 per serving prices.)
We ordered our drinks and dismayingly, the server brought us a bottle of jasmine tea, store-bought, rather than fresh jasmine tea, which would have been more ideal. Oh well.
But I spotted something on the menu that is not readily offered at Korean restaurants, but will usually be offered at only Korean-owned Japanese restaurants: Hwae Dub-bap (회덥밥)! Considering the fact that this dish needs fresh and raw fish put atop rice, it’s not surprising that only Japanese restaurants typically offer it. In fact, to order raw fish anything at an otherwise non-Japanese, non-sashimi restaurant was risky, at best, but it was what I wanted and what I chose to order. Afterall, while this dish may have raw fish in it, it’s a truly Korean dish, though some will argue that it was originally a Japanese dish due to using raw fish.
Whatever. Wherever it actually comes from, it’s popular in Korea and we make it best, so there you go.
In fact, I love making this at home — and while the entire process is tedious with a lot of work involved for one dish — it’s so, so good. Hmm, perhaps I’ll do a blog post about it one day.
In any case, I decided to order that, and Mr. K opted for the “Krazy Korean”. Okay, he actually tried to go for the bulgogi but I find that boring, so I basically twisted his arm to order what the menu describes as “our take on the loco moco” as it was interesting and read like it had potential. I mean, you can’t come to this “fusiony” Korean joint and not order one “fusionized” dish, right? And since I was getting the hwae-dub-bap, which involves minimal cooking — I had to coax him to go for the “Krazy Korean”. (This is sound logic in my book.)
So the orders get placed and while we wait, the banchan comes out. For many, the highlight of a meal will be the banchan layout at Korean restaurants — and those people will be a tad disappointed at the quantity offered here, especially compared to banchan presentation at places like Ohgane. Taste-wise, none were even remotely delicious; all were “somewhat acceptable”; the green spinach you see was quite good.
We decided to share an appetizer, and the Crispy Tofu was interesting in that it’s not Korean; this is usually considered a Chinese dish but it is one of my favorites, and what Stone Korean Kitchen offered was quite good. The soy sauce concoction offered (초장) was decent, but I liked that the really light batter on the tofu was already salted and thankfully needed no soy sauce. (You may differ on this as I really tend to avoid soy sauce, though not as much as I steer clear of ketchup!)
The Krazy Korean came to the table after a minimal wait — sizzling in a clay pot, as promised on the menu. I was excited to have a taste of what a “Korean Loco Moco” would be like, as I thought the idea in and of itself was a good one. Mr. K mixed it up a little and then I got the first bite, which was scalding hot (good). The egg was cooked nicely, but the ground beef was a bit flavorless, and combined with the “gravy” they put all over this dish, which tasted more like donkatsu sauce than gravy, I could really taste not much else besides the sauce. There was a good amount of sesame oil gracing the rice, and the kimchee in this dish was barely discernable except in texture, when you got some cabbage-like feel in your mouth.
The concept? Good.
Execution? It kind of misses the mark…..I have at least seven different ideas on how to make this infinitely better but the first step would be to get rid of the sauce which they call “gravy”; that ain’t gravy, Stone Korean Kitchen!
This is my order, Hwae Dub Bap, which literally means “Raw fish over Rice”. Basically, it has raw fish on top, vegetables below that, a bit of sesame oil and some rice underneath — so the true accent comes from the chili paste sauce that accompanies this dish, where all the flavor should come to life when put together. You put as much sauce as you can handle on it, mix it all up and go to town, so to speak.Before I go into how that was, let me show you a photo of what MY hwae dub bap looks like:
That is a big bowl, and believe me, there are a lot of vegetables underneath the fish. Granted, for a restaurant to serve it up like this, they’d have to charge double since I used pricier fish that was entirely sashimi-grade, but notice the larger slices of fish and the amount of fish, which is the whole point of “hwae dub bap”. Also, it wasn’t previously frozen, which makes the fish have much more texture; previously frozen fish, which is what I believe Stone Korean Kitchen used, is always mushier, for lack of a better word — with “air pockets” inside the meat.
At Stone Korean Kitchen, the fact that they used bland and flavorless fish that I couldn’t even identify is one thing, but the bigger problem is that all the fish was so chopped up into pieces that you really don’t get a good taste of any fish in this dish. While I appreciate lots of chopped up greens as much as anyone, that is not supposed to be the highlight of this dish. And worst of all was that the rice was on the hotter side of things rather than the room temperature, if not slightly cooled off rice that this dish is supposed to have in order to ensure the freshness (and rawness) of the fish, and to keep the veggies crunchy, not steamed over.
But putting all that aside, the chili paste concoction with vinegar (초고추장), which is the flavor highlight of this dish, did nothing for this dish. As easy as this paste is to make, it’s surprising how few people make it well — and Stone Korean Kitchen was no exception.
In the end, I picked out whatever chunks of fish my chopsticks could actually grab and ate that. Thankfully, I wasn’t starving on this day, and I did have plenty of the crispy tofu that I wasn’t cranky about basically skipping dinner. Instead, while Mr. K was wholly under-impressed with his Krazy Korean, I ended up eating more spoonfuls of that mediocrity than I did my own order which was flat out boring.
In the end, the highlight of this dinner was actually the view outside once we were done with dinner. I love this city, but too often, I forget just how pretty this city actually is. I have traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and I have seen much of this great country of ours — but San Francisco holds its own in beauty no matter what I see.
Even if we don’t have a lick of decent Korean food in the whole city.
Addictive Factor: 3/10
Overall Rating: 5.3/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.