KoMo KoMo sets the bar high and meets it

CorrespondentApril 13, 2012 

If you happened to stumble upon KoMo KoMo, which opened last November in Cary’s Maynard Crossing, you might think it’s just another strip mall Asian eatery. There’s certainly nothing to disabuse you of that notion in the compact dining room, which is modestly - albeit attractively - furnished with framed silk tapestries, rustic glazed pottery on bracket shelves, and simple banquettes whose austere lines are softened by an eclectic assortment of cushions.

Add paper napkins on the tables and a soft drink cooler in a back corner, and you’re not surprised when you open the menu and see the traditional fare of owner/chef Jae Lee’s native Korea.

But that’s only half of the offering. The other half will take you unawares - unless, that is, you already know about Lee’s background. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the young chef’s resume already glittered with stellar New York restaurants Veritas, Danube and Palladin when he came to the Triangle in 2006 and added the Washington Duke Inn, Mint and Fins to his constellation.

At KoMo KoMo, Lee’s classic training is evident in a seasonally changing offering of contemporary French-inflected fare that sets expectations high and rarely fails to live up to them.

A pairing of cardamom-scented sautéed shrimp and roasted beets, framed in a vinaigrette of aged sherry vinegar and Thai red curry, is every bit as delightful to eat as it is to look at. An individual shrimp and corn casserole in a rich sherry cream showcases the shellfish in an altogether different - and just as flattering - light.

Winter’s parsnip soup with black truffle cream is gone for the season, but few will fail to find consolation in the organic spring pea and asparagus soup that replaced it.

The chef celebrates the ephemeral spring pea in a main course offering, too, where it’s joined by lobster or shrimp in pillowy homemade ravioli in an orange beurre blanc. A pan-seared rib-eye with bordeaux sauce, rosemary roasted potatoes and watercress salad caters to more traditional tastes.

So does the closest thing to an authentic bouillabaisse I’ve come across in a long time, which serves up a bounty of fish and shellfish in a tomato broth redolent of saffron, fennel and the sea. Toasted baguette slices and a small dish of rouille on the side will further widen the smile on an aficionado’s face.

Which will likely stretch from ear to ear when dessert arrives. Brioche bread pudding with coconut lime cream sauce, perhaps, or organic carrot cake, served warm with cardamom cream. Crème brûlée rates a qualified recommendation: Ginger lemongrass crème brûlée was exemplary on one occasion, but on another night the custard had failed to set in a lavender crème brûlée.

If the traditional Korean fare isn’t as novel or as varied as chef Lee’s contemporary creations, it’s nonetheless solidly executed.

Ssam, Korean lettuce leaf wraps, are available in two versions: beef bulgoki and smoked pork, both of which come with kimchi (made in house by Lee’s wife, El Ryoo), pickled daikon and radish, traditional condiments and rice.

You also get Ryoo’s excellent kimchi as one of the components of the famous meal-in-a-bowl bibimbap, where it joins julienne carrot, scallion and your choice of beef bulgoki, smoked pork or vegetables atop a bed of brown or white rice. Add hot sauce to taste, toss and dig in.

Chef Lee is not above sneaking the occasional Western touch into a traditional Korean dish. The small mesclun salad at the center of a circle of “chicken dumplings,” for instance, which turn out to be mandu (Korea’s answer to Chinese pot-stickers), expertly pan-seared on one side and served with a ginger-soy dipping sauce.

Or the colorful squiggles of infused oils and sweet lime chile sauce garnishing a plate of spring rolls - which are crisp and well-filled, though the wrappers are greasier than the “oven-baked” description would lead you to expect.

The chef plans to venture further into fusion territory in the coming weeks, exploring the “Korean mosaic” concept embodied in his restaurant’s name. In the works are pan-seared diver scallops with taro puree and fennel curry emulsion, grilled Korean style chicken with angel hair pasta salad, and roasted cod with baby bok choy, Peruvian purple potato and candied ginger.

Sounds like a colorful palette, and a daring one. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jae Lee is an artist capable of turning it into a delightful mosaic.

KoMo KoMo

1305 NW Maynard Road, Cary


Cuisine: Korean, contemporary French

Rating: ***1/2

Prices: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: casual, contemporary Asian

Noise level: low to moderate

Service: pleasant, occasional lapses

Recommended: shrimp and beet salad, shrimp and corn casserole, smoked pork ssam, bouillabaisse, desserts

Open: lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer and wine permit pending; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  * Extraordinary *  *  *  * Excellent. *  *  * Above average. *  * Average. * Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25. or

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