Real Seoul Food

Koreana Korean Grill and Sushi Bar

12196 N. MoPac, 835-8888

Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm, 5-10pm;
Sat-Sun, 5-10pm

As Austin sprawl crawls further and further north and car dealerships, superstores, and strip malls litter the landscape, I am continually surprised to find new reasons to venture out of the city's centralized bubble of civilization. The latest of these is Koreana.



Koreana Korean Grill and Sushi Bar

photograph by John Anderson

Up around RR1325, on the west side of the MoPac frontage road, lies an outpost of culture -- Korean culture. At first glance a low, wide building marked by neon and painted cobblestones leading from the parking lot, Koreana turns out to be a haven against the rumble and hum of the highway outside, with quiet, recessed lighting, Japanese paintings on the walls, and several dining areas, including a cozy tea room complete with Korean novels and magazines.

Our first visit was dedicated to the Korean portion of the menu. We began the meal with an order of Steamed Mandoo ($4.95), six perfectly formed half-moon dumplings, and the Gleaming Mussel Feast ($6.95). The dumplings themselves were standard fare, an amalgam of ground pork and beef with onion, garlic, and chives. We savored the dumplings themselves but wished that the accompanying soy-ginger sauce had a touch of pungency to counter the sweetness.

The gleaming mussel feast is reason enough to come to Koreana at least once, even if it weren't called the gleaming mussel feast. Six huge mussels are sautéed, sliced in half for easy consumption, and rested back in their shells before being broiled under a red-chili/flyfish roe concoction. The sauce also contains sun-dried tomatoes and what may be cream or mayonnaise. Whatever the case, get the mussels.

We wanted to try a bulgogi to pay homage to the well-known Korean barbecue dish, but we steered away from the beef ($12.95) in flavor of the Salmon Bulgogi Steak ($14.95). An incredibly fresh fish steak was marinated in sesame seeds, sesame oil, soy sauce, and ginger. The delicious Japanese pear and honey glaze that topped the fish was accented with shaved curls of green onion. The fish steak and its accompanying bed of white rice rested on a sizzling cast-iron platter shaped like a reclining cow.

We also ordered the Spicy Garlic Shrimp ($12.95) from the "Korea's Spice Heritage" portion of the menu. Fresh shrimp was flash-fried with broccoli, mushrooms, zucchini, carrots, and green peppers. The shrimp was tender, the vegetables crisp, and the red-chili/garlic sauce spread warmth through the back of the throat but was sweet enough to be reminiscent of Korean flavors.

Both Korean and Japanese entrees are served with banchan, chilled portions of Korean-style vegetables served in tiny white bowls. Our table was treated to a small bowl each of kimchee, sesame-marinated spinach, zucchini, bean sprouts, chili-infused fried tofu, and sweet, pickley daikon. Diners serve themselves family-style with the stainless steel chopsticks with a delicately enameled pattern.

That night, we completed the meal with two scoops of creamily sweet and rose-scented plum wine ice cream ($2.50) in an earthenware bowl. Both the presentation and preparation of all of our selections that night were exemplary, and we left impressed with our waiter's knowledge of the menu.

Although the Korean portion of the menu was not done justice in one sitting -- we left without sampling a hotpot, tofu dish, or some of the seafood offerings, including wok-cooked squid and broiled octopus -- we felt it only fair to dedicate the next visit to the sushi and other Japanese-style food on the menu.

We began with an appetizer order of the Tempura ($7.95), four jumbo shrimp and one piece each of broccoli, mushroom, zucchini, green pepper, and potato. We found the tempura batter to have a strange consistency; instead of being lacy, it looked more like coconut breading, although the flavor seemed to be the same. And rather than the traditional sweet potato slices, Koreana chose a regular potato, which gave it the taste and texture of a french fry.

For entrees, we chose a platter of Beef Tenderloin Smoked Teriyaki ($12.95) and were not disappointed by the thinly shaved slices of tender beef prepared in a sweet, garlicky teriyaki. We also enjoyed the banchan, which this time included a great seaweed salad with chili, onions, and sesame oil.

We ordered an assortment of nigiri sushi pieces ($3.25-4.50), along with a California Roll ($4.50) and Spicy Yellowtail Roll ($6.25). The sushi was artfully arranged on a teal platter with shavings of pickled ginger in two of the corners and a perfectly thumbed ball of wasabi in another. Sushi roll slices had a delicate teardrop shape and sesame seeds sprinked throughout the rice, but the rice had an odd, crumbly texture for normally sticky-sweet sushi rice. The California roll passed muster and the spicy yellowtail roll was fine, but except for the smoky flakes of eel, the individual pieces of nigiri sushi didn't leave a favorable impression.

Each order of nigiri sushi has two slices each of the substance in question. We got an order of mackerel, eel, tuna, and tamago, each slice draped over a ball of rice with a tiny smear of wasabi in between. The mackerel, with its shiny rind of silver skin, was unappetizing, I had one unpleasantly fishy bite of the tuna, and instead of being a fluffy sweet egg cake, the tamago was glossy, flat, syrupy sweet, and had a distinctly fishy taste.

Unfortunately, our impression of Koreana was ultimately tarnished by the sushi experience. The irony is that during the first visit, we ate almost exclusively seafood -- salmon, mussels, and shrimp -- and my fellow eater and I both remarked that everything was really appetizing and seemed to be at the peak of perfection. With this in mind, it may be fair to give the sushi another chance another time. In the meantime, I look forward to visiting the charming, polite, well-kempt Koreana again, to sample the rest of their excellent Korean food.

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