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Dong Lee has owned two esteemed sushi-focused restaurants in Little Rock — Hanaroo and Eastern Flames — and has a history in the business in Texas. So it is a little surprising that after being open a few weeks, Seoul, his latest venture, is not yet fully ready for prime time.
Housed in the modest-sized building on Kavanaugh in the Heights that was home for years to Satellite Cafe, Seoul was busy but not overflowing on our first weekday-evening visit.
Still, waitresses had that "oh, no," deer-in-the-headlights look as they over-apologized for delays in taking orders, getting drinks to the table and bringing appetizers and entrees. They over-apologized that they didn't yet have menus with pictures and explanations of dishes.
Other surprises for a restaurant owned by a veteran: There appears to be no Seoul web presence yet — so there was no chance to peruse the menu before arriving — and no paper menus have been printed to allow easy spreading of the word to office mates, friends and family.
But the bigger disappointment was in the food. Admittedly we are not Korean food veterans, though we have eaten Thai, Vietnamese and plenty of Americanized Chinese. And that will be the case with many who visit Seoul. Therefore we eschewed the soft tofu stews that come with either mushroom, beef, chicken and seafood, and among the signature "bibimbap" dishes we chose beef over eel.
Bibimbap dishes come in piping-hot, thick metal bowls that hold their heat long after their contents have been consumed. Rice is the base, with a sauteed vegetable topping and shredded meat — beef, eel, chicken or seafood. And there is a veggie option, too.
Our issues with the beef bibimbap were threefold: 1) the dish continues to cook in that hot bowl; in this case it meant the once-fluffy rice melded to the bowl in a thick layer — nearly charred and very dried out; 2) there might have been one ounce of shredded beef on the dish; we didn't need or expect a 24-ounce T-bone, but the ratio of meat to other ingredients was skimpy and offered little taste balance; and 3) it was bland, in serious need of zing.
At lunch, the dish costs $11, not a good bargain for what you get; at dinner it's $15 and includes an accompanying plate with small portions of kimchi, the fermented vegetable dish, usually cabbage; potatoes that had been cooked with soy sauce, some sweetening agent and likely onion and/or garlic; and a shredded white radish concoction, all of which are tasty and offer nice counterbalances to the bibimbap.
Our dinner companion had two of the same thoughts about her salmon dish — three ounces or so of fish seemed skimpy, and teamed with sauteed vegetables and rice, it wasn't flavorful enough.
A return trip for lunch yielded somewhat better results. First, at 11:50 a.m. only three tables were occupied, so the waiters were much calmer. Second, we went for two of the Korean platters, which team an entree with two scoops of soft white rice not doomed to a sizzling death in a bibimbap bowl, and two small, crunchy, tasty, decidedly non-greasy vegetable spring rolls.
We're not sure whether the kielbasa-type sausage featured in the sausage and chicken dish is something Koreans eat, but it worked well with the accompanying small hunks of chicken breast sauteed in a sweet, savory thin barbecue-type sauce. And our companion enjoyed his chicken-and-vegetable platter, though he said it could have used more spice.
Nine sushi boxes, each $9, are offered at lunch. Each comes with a different roll, as well as seaweed salad, a small egg omelet, crabstick tempura and rice. Because we knew the sushi at Hanaroo and Eastern Flames to be top-quality, we didn't spend one of our four opportunities at Seoul on sushi. We would be surprised if many flock there simply for the sushi, given that Sushi Cafe, considered by many aficionados the best in town, is just a block or so away.
Service glitches and other auxiliary matters are likely to be taken care of fairly soon, but it's not yet clear whether the quality and selection of menu choices will inspire many diners to climb aboard the Seoul train.
5923 Kavanaugh Blvd.
The uninitiated will find several things outside their culinary comfort zone — an eel dish and a collection of soft tofu stews, for example — but there also are plenty of familiar meats and vegetables cooked in interesting ways.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Beer and wine. All CC accepted.