I’m no authority on Korean food, but usually the words “Korean BBQ” entail a table-top grill on which customers cook their own meats—an ingenious form of culinary outsourcing. Gaon has no such grills, though one dish was served on a sizzling hot plate set over a dish of flammable pink jelly. But no temperature dials, no overhead vents, no mounting flames, no pervasive aroma of smoke. (There’s a rumor that each table will soon have its own smokeless grill, but… smokeless?)
Does that mean it’s inauthentic? Beats me. It does mean that from the moment we sat down, Gaon was fighting our expectations—a feeling compounded by the allegiance of several diners in the party to Masa, the beloved neighborhood Japanese-owned Japanese restaurant that once occupied the space. Gaon (which, incidentally, is Hebrew for “honorable sage”) is possessed of significantly more upscale décor than Masa was, sleek and modern and minimal—except for the flat screen playing CNN.
The plating, too, is sleek , more like a modern bistro than a BBQ joint. It’s hard, in fact, not to think of Cham and its suppression of the pleasing scuzz that one associates with a certain type of Korean restaurant—a program which makes sense just west of South Lake, but is, at first, mildly puzzling in East Pasadena. And thou, too, shalt be gentrified. The operative word here is “clean.”
This goes for the food as well. With the exception of the kimchi banchan, flavors were generally tight and polished, sometimes to the detriment of a dish. What dishes, you ask? Besides a standard assortment of small dishes, or banchan (kimchi, broccoli, sprouts, noodles, etc), there was a spicy pork shoulder (tender, sweet, not that spicy, delicious) a beef and egg bibimbap (sufficiently smoky and crisp, but ordinary), and, for two of us, the Lotus Leaf tasting menu, an eleven course feast, though everything was brought out in such a jumble that I am not absolutely confident in my count (my notes are a mess and there’s no online menu, so please forgive the occasional vaguery). The Lotus Leaf menu is $25/person and mightily inconsistent.
It begins with three dishes: rolled flower crepes, supposedly filled with veggies, beef, and crabmeat, then drizzled with a yellow “mustard” sauce; mung bean jelly noodles with cukes, nuts, shredded beef, and a pleasing kick; and a plate of greens smothered in strawberries and strawberry puree. The crepe and salad were staggeringly boring, but the noodles were quite good, nicely flavored with a firm, supple texture, with the barest of crunches.
After the openers, dishes began arriving in rapid succession. The six “standard” banchan came out, followed by three “special” banchan (mushrooms, spinach, and lotus root, which were, I believe, collectively counted as one dish towards the eleven course total), followed by Chilean sea bass (5) and Korean short ribs (6), followed by Korean miso soup (7) and sweet rice steamed in lotus leaf (8), followed by a soggy tempura of halibut, shrimp, cucumber, squash, mushroom, and beef-stuffed bell pepper (9)—not to mention the pork shoulder and the bibimbap. Maybe five minutes elapses between the arrival of the banchan and the tempura. This is unavoidable, perhaps, when two people are having one dish and two people are having eleven, but it was overwhelming nonetheless. And really, banchan would be perfect for mitigating the potential timing issue.
We ate in silence for a while, stunned by the enormity of the bounty and task before us. Around the time we began speaking again, dessert arrived: a thin, sweet rice cake drizzled with honey (10), and a cup of Kabocha punch (11), a refreshing finish. But reader, would you believe I did not leave bursting? Sated, yes, even full, but not in danger of bursting any buttons.
And how were dishes (4) through (11)? The mushrooms and lotus root in the special banchan were nice—substantial, earthy, flavorful—but the spinach was limp, soggy, and somehow also dry. I thought the Chilean sea bass, with a sweet miso sauce and served with diced and grilled peppers and onions, was excellent, though my fellow Lotus Eater, a culinary student, accused it of being overcooked.
The soup consisted of tender bits of beef, mushrooms, jalapenos, and tofu in a hearty and comforting broth—a nice mid-meal treat. The short ribs, cooked bone-in, were tough, at least compared to every other Korean short rib I have ever eaten. The lotus rice was dry and sticky with a tinge of sweet, but basically forgettable. Calling the tempura “tempura” is perhaps unfair; perhaps it was intended to be damp, soggy, and limp. The foodstuffs within the fry, on the other hand, acquitted themselves just fine, particularly the stuffed bell pepper.
And, at last, dessert. The rice cake was odd—sweet at first, with a rapid slide into flavorlessness, like a piece of gum. One diner asserted that it had a bitter aftertaste, though no-one else could detect this phantom flavor. Much more satisfying was the Kabocha punch, which was like pumpkin juice, a cool balm for overworked stomachs.
So, a mixed bag, though certainly deserving of another visit once those smokeless grills are installed. Without a doubt, Gaon is better than all the other Korean restaurants east of Lake in Pasadena (of which there are zero, in case that needed to be said). Venture over the border into Arcadia, however, and you can eat at Young-Dong Tofu Restaurant. And that place is no joke.
Gaon Authentic Korean BBQ Restaurant, 2063 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 626.796.9604. Open Mon. – Sun. 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.