A new chef is on a roll

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A new chef is on a roll

When Han Yong-jin, who owns Korean record label A.R. Media, wanted to open a restaurant, he didn’t want it to be ordinary. When he ran a cafe-and-bar in Sinchon in 1995, the theme was a prison.
Last summer, he traveled all over the United States for three months, looking for the best Japanese rolls, his favorite dish. Such rolls, called maki in Japanese, are similar to sushi, with the primary ingredients including vinegared steamed rice and a topping, rolled into a tube or other shape and served with a dipping or soy sauce.
In September 2003, Mr. Han discovered a Korean-American chef, Keith Moon, who owns Ozeki Sushi Restaurant, a well-known sushi and roll joint in Ventura, California. Last month, they opened Eki eki (pronounced as “iki iki”), a restaurant in the posh district of Cheongdam-dong.
Mr. Han wanted Eki eki to be “a total entertainment space that continues to change with time and trend.” To cater to the town’s fashion and advertising elites, he’s offering a daily live performance: Diners get to watch a beautiful Russian woman sleeping, reading or sipping a cup of tea through a glass window.
The two-story restaurant, which can seat up to 165, has flat-screen TVs and a DJ box. While waiting, diners can check out the karaoke club in the basement.
The location of bathrooms, which have special transparent glass doors that turn opaque when in use, changes daily: One day the women’s bathroom is downstairs, another day it’s upstairs. Because of all its novelties, Eki eki has already drawn a number of curious spectators.
The menu introduces the Korean-American roll expert’s best recipes. The top-selling roll from Mr. Moon’s Ventura restaurant is the Eki hand roll (6,000 won or $5). The roll is so large that it almost looks like a French crepe. The delicate wrap around the seafood and rice has a pearly appearance. Mr. Moon says it’s a Japanese import, made from soybeans.
The wrap, specked with black sesame seeds, is fattened with rice, tender crabmeat, strips of fried chicken and fresh cucumber, topped with bright red flying fish roe. It’s tender from the first bite, juicy and tasty from the pile of seasoned crabmeat and vegetables, while the roe pops inside the mouth. It’s a wonderful introduction to Mr. Moon’s creativity.
Eel avocado roll (12,000 won) is a beautiful combination of sweetly marinated fish and soft avocado wrapped with a strip of nori, or black seaweed paper. The California roll (7,000 won) is packed with crab, avocado, cucumber and nori, then rolled in a bowl of tobitko, flying fish roe.
Spicy rolls are also refreshing and tasty, and the added hot spice makes it appetizing, especially during a multiple-course meal. Among the spicy rolls, Jack Pot roll (13,000 won) is especially delicious. On top of crabmeat, seaweed and rice is white fish, which is again coated with sweet cheese melting like cream under the broiler. This is spiked with red pepper sauce.
What makes Eki eki even more pleasant is the price. The popular Lunch Set C (12,000 won), comes with a salad, sushi and rolls from “today’s special ingredient” and spicy seafood yaki udon. It’s light but not scanty, filling but not overwhelming.
With the sushi and rolls, Japanese beer (6,000 to 8,000 won) or chilled sake (9,000 won) is recommended.
Unlike most Japanese restaurants in Korea, Mr. Moon refuses to serve green tea. “Most green tea sold in Korea is low quality, and people don’t seem to understand how hard it is prepare a perfect pot of green tea for each table. Until I find a way to properly introduce what real green tea is, I won’t serve it,” he said.
His green tea ice cream (2,000 for plain ice cream; 4,000 won for the tempura version) is delicious, but ever the perfectionist, he’s also dissatisfied with the quality, saying it has been made to suit local tastes.
“There are many world-class ingredients, such as toro’s (bluefin) akami and snow crab, to make the most exquisite dishes. But the truth is, even if I want to use them, there seems to be no supply here because there is virtually no demand. This will change. I’m aspiring to upgrade the quality of the food here,” Mr. Moon says.

by Ines Cho
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