Ethnic restaurants in Charlotte seem to fall into two categories: Those with atmosphere -- either sexy or Epnic (Disneyfied ethnic) and at times serve a questionable, dumbed-down version of cuisine; or those smaller places located in ethnic neighborhoods that are glaringly devoid of atmosphere and offer a mix of street and casual food.
Existing beyond the perfunctory Formica are a few ethnic restaurants hoping to offer a higher-end experience of their native cuisine. But a large tab for ethnic food can be a dicey proposition in Charlotte. Sure, Japanese cuisine commands the platinum, but I hear a lot of grumbling about high-end Indian places.
So it was a gutsy move when the sophisticated Cho Won Garden Korean Barbecue & Cuisine opened in June with a cuisine unfamiliar to many. While Charlotte has been home to many outposts of Korean cuisine (most notably Seoul on Monroe Road), most have been either been a mix of Japanese and Korean cuisine or street food eateries.
The 168-seat Cho Won, located in an out-parcel, which has seen its share of restaurant turnovers, is owned by the Ji family. Father Kwang Sik Ji, who also owns a construction company, transformed the interior with extensive, intricate mill work, lighting, and granite table tops. Eight of these tables include a grill. The dining room is divided into several rooms and a bar while the center wall opposing the entrance depicts old Hangul script revealing the mix of the Korean and Chinese cultures.
Co-owner Cythnia Ji manages the front of the house and performs table-side grilling while her aunt Kellen Ji heads up the kitchen.
Heat is the hallmark of Korean cuisine. But unlike other heat-loving cuisines, the heat at the Korean table is discretionary and added by each diner. The Korean table is set with banchan, or condiment dishes. The old saw is the more dishes, the better the restaurant. Cho Won offers a dozen or so: chile paste, macaroni salad, pickled carrots, fermented mung beans, spicy daikon radishes, fried scallions, sweetened soy beans, sliced Korean green peppers, minced tofu and spinach, raw garlic, hot peppers, and kimchi.
Kimchi, a spicy, tangy tangle of vegetables, is perhaps the best known of all Korean condiments, but can differ in form and taste just as cucumber pickles do on American grocery shelves. The primary ingredients typically include Napa cabbage, red pepper powder, ginger, green onions, garlic, radishes, and pickled seafood like shrimp or anchovies. Kimchi varies by regions and seasonally. Usually in autumn, kimchi is produced for long-term storage -- in other words fermented -- while in spring and summer kimchi can be "crisp," not fermented. Chef Ji's kimchi is the latter.
At center stage is the robust beef and pork barbecue. Even those tables that do not have the built-in grill can be set up with portable gas burners with a perforated brass cook top. One downside of Cho Won is the barbecue must be a minimum of two orders, and these orders need to be the same meat. On the roster are unseasoned prime rib, marinated short rib, unseasoned rib eye, rib eye in a barbecue sauce, sliced marinated pork, and unseasoned pork belly. Prices range from $17.95 to $21.95. The other downside is the table service button located on the wall, which looks remarkably like a doorbell. I watched one frustrated mom finally switch seats with her toddler.
Barbecue is cooked for novices by Cythnia Ji. While she's cooking she'll also give you the 411 for DIY Korean dishes: tear off a piece of lettuce; slather it with ssamjang soybean paste, a heat seeking chile soy combination; add the grilled meat; some pickles -- even the raw garlic. Roll it up and pop it in your mouth. "Yes, it's a lettuce wrap," you can hear her say over and over again to other tables.
Even more fun is watching Ji expertly cut up the potentially tired, but actually flavorful, thin seafood pancake hey-mul pajun with scissors. "Koreans love scissors," she notes, clipping away. The crispy pancake, best enjoyed with Soju, a vodka, is a flour-batter spiked with calamari slices, shrimp, and finely minced habanero chile. Slices can be muffled by its sesame soy sauce sidekick.
The bibimbap, a quintessential Korean dish with medium grain sticky rice, raw vegetables, and a fried egg, is mixed together with chile paste to taste. The complimentary soup appeared with a cautionary, "You may not like this. It's an acquired taste." Old socks came to mind: I guess she's right. But there were no complaints about the gun mandoo, crispy thin-skinned half-moon dumplings stuffed with a mixture of meat and spice.
The Ji family has big ambitions ... and why not? Cho Won pays homage to a cuisine long underrepresented in this community.
Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).