Restaurant Review

Korean restaurant offers a rainbow of flavors, colors

CorrespondentJuly 19, 2012 

  • More information Min Ga 116 Old Durham Road, Chapel Hill 919-933-1773 www.min-ga.com Cuisine: Korean Rating: *** Prices: $$ Atmosphere: understated contemporary Asian Noise level: low to moderate Service: uneven Recommended: leek dumplings, duk bok ki, pork sausage, Korean pancake, dolsot bibimbop, broiled croaker Open: lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: accepted Other: beer, wine and sake; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

It’s commonly said that we eat with our eyes first, but as any oyster lover will tell you, taste and smell are the sensory trump cards when it comes to food. Min Ga, like most restaurants specializing in the garlic- and spice-rich cuisine of Korea, has got those two senses covered in spades.

But for all the olfactory and taste-bud memories I collected over the course of my visits to Min Ga, it’s the sights that I recall most vividly. Or, more precisely, the colors – from the sunset-washed greens and yellows of the tidy vegetable garden that abuts the parking lot behind the restaurant to the iridescent hues of butterflies, mounted and framed, on the dining room walls.

A hobby of owner/chef Helen Woo, who opened Min Ga last summer, the butterflies add splashes of personality to the earth tones of an otherwise understated contemporary Asian décor. (Min Ga inherited its architectural bones from Sushi Yoshi, the Japanese restaurant that previously occupied the building for 15 years.)

As it happens, the butterflies are also harbingers of the rainbow palette of colors and flavors to come.

The pale jade filling of homemade steamed leek dumplings, for starters, tantalizes through translucent wrappers. If you find yourself balking at the $12.95 price, bear in mind that it gets you eight good-sized dumplings and a spicy, scallion-flecked dipping sauce. That’s ample for three or four to share.

Especially if you pair the dumplings with a Korean pancake: a light, eggy disk topped with copper-colored tatters of kimchi or a patchwork of shrimp, squid and scallions.

Better still are duk bok ki, which the menu describes as “rice cakes stir-fried with vegetables in a spicy sauce.” The “rice cakes” turn out to be stubby cylinders of dough with a texture reminiscent of gnocchi, simmered with cabbage and onion in a sauce whose soft peach color belies its pungent kick.

Your waiter may try to steer you away from a dish innocuously labeled “pork sausage,” informing you that it’s a blood sausage. Don’t let him. The links are indeed an unaccustomed dark shade of oxblood, but there’s nothing intimidating about their mild flavor or their texture, which is lightened with bits of sweet potato vermicelli and rice.

Korean barbecue is well-represented by a half-dozen options, from kalbi (beef short ribs) to sam gyeop sal (pork belly). Order the bento box version of, say, bulgoki (marinated rib-eye), and one of the lacquered compartments will contain a salad with a distinctive ginger dressing that owes its vibrant color and pleasantly surprising flavor to orange zest. Contents of the other compartments are chef’s choice, but invariably include rice and a couple more dainties – recently, fried dumplings and Korean-style sushi roll.

Bibimbop, the famous Korean rice dish, lives up to its reputation here with a kaleidoscope topping of julienne carrots, spinach, bean sprouts and a sesame-spangled sunny-side-up egg. Spring for the extra $2 and get the dolsot (“hot stone pot”) bibimbop. The oven-warmed stone pot keeps its contents warm, and adds a pleasant crunch to the bottom layer of rice.

Joki kui, salted and broiled whole croaker whose silver skin is overlaid with the gold of a crackling crust (the skin is slashed to maximize the crispness factor), is a keeper. You’ll have to negotiate a lot of little bones to get at the moist, pristine white flesh underneath, but it’s worth the effort.

Jamppong, a meal-in-a-bowl of mixed seafood and noodles in a chile-reddened broth, has long been one of my favorites in the Korean repertoire. The soup in Min Ga’s rendition delivers on its fiery promise, but falls short with a paucity of seafood: a mussel, a shrimp and a few bites of squid when I ordered the dish.

Thankfully, the kitchen doesn’t often disappoint. The only other letdown I encountered was a bland rendition of ramen japchae, which the menu describes as “pan-fried ramen noodles with vegetables and beef in spicy sauce.”

Min Ga’s weak link isn’t in the kitchen but in the dining room. The wait staff are knowledgeable and generally eager to please, but pacing and attentiveness are uneven. Don’t be surprised if entrees arrive just as you’re tucking into appetizers, and be prepared to flag down your server for a drink refill.

At the end of the meal, the check will be delivered to your table with an assortment of Dum Dum lollipops, a different flavor for each person in your party. They’re sure to bring a smile to your face, and the primary colors of their wrappers - grape, strawberry, blueberry, sour apple - are a fitting addition to the spectrum of memories you’ve collected at Min Ga.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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