Riddle me this: What do you get when a native Korean who grew up in the Midwest, then moved to North Carolina where she managed a farmers market, then sold dumplings at that market, decides to open her first restaurant?
You get Kimbap, another refreshing splash in the wave of next-generation restaurants that have been washing over the culinary landscape in recent years. A restaurant whose young chef is driven by a passion for honest food, a chef who respects tradition but isnt bound by it. A restaurant where the words fresh and local arent just words printed on the menu but are guiding philosophies. A restaurant where the supplemental chalkboard menu is required reading.
In the case of Kimbap, which Kim Hunter opened in March in Seaboard Station, the chalkboard includes a list of local suppliers, many of them connections made during her years at the Western Wake Farmers Market in Morrisville. The list is impressive, and includes the likes of Farmhand Foods, Coon Rock Farm, and Eastern Carolina Organics.
The board also lists a selection of local draft beers and nightly specials. On Tuesdays its Korean tacos, and on weekends its a seasonal dinner feature. Recently, that meant Locals Seafood shrimp and grits, Korean style.
Bibimbap, the Thursday night special, is so popular that Hunter plans to add it to the regular menu soon (and its already available every day at lunch). Judging by a recent version Korean barbecue beef (bulgogi) and a medley of seasonal local greens and carrots atop a textbook crisp-bottomed mound of rice, topped off with a fried egg its popularity comes as no surprise.
Its also easy to understand why Hunters Korean dumplings made her one of the most popular vendors at the Western Wake Farmers Market. Featuring scratch-made pockets of dough carefully seared on all sides to a delicate golden brown, theyre available with fillings of seasonal veggies or a savory hash of pork, cabbage and ginger.
The restaurants namesake dish is kimbap (often spelled gimbap, but if your name was Kim, which spelling would you choose?), which you might describe as Koreas answer to Japans sushi rolls. Instead of raw fish, though, these oversize rolls are filled with local braised brisket and house-made kimchi, or a toothsome medley of smoked pork, greens and egg.
Or a chefs choice of seasonal vegetables. Vegetarians and vegans will be happy to know that every category on the menu includes an option tailored to their lifestyle. Gluten-free diets are catered to, as well.
The vegetarian and gluten-free version of jigae, an entree stew of tofu, shiitakes and vegetables served with a side of steamed rice, is a tempting option even for a dedicated carnivore. Granted, its got serious competition in the form of a jigae chockablock with brisket, local greens, local egg, rice cakes and scallions. Or, for that matter, a fish curry that has been showcasing irreproachably fresh red snapper of late, but depending on the catch might also feature anything from black drum to tilefish.
Ssam, Korean lettuce wraps, present a similar dilemma. Do you go with bulgogi or marinated tofu? Then again, you wont go wrong with the alternating layers of meaty crunch and unctuous fat in pasture-raised pork belly. Whichever you choose, youll get Korean slaw, kimchi and spicy red chile sauce to assemble your wrap to your liking, and a bowl of steamed white rice on the side.
Missteps are gratifyingly infrequent and surprisingly so for a first restaurant barely five months after opening. House-made kimchi has all the right flavor notes, but the texture could stand to be a little firmer. The wait staff are uniformly friendly and enthusiastic and generally attentive, though they can get overwhelmed when the dining room is full.
Which it often is. Kimbaps dining room is a compact 25-seat Korean bento box of a space, with seating for maybe another dozen on the sidewalk patio. Its a pleasant setting, though, with muted earth tones and natural wood a suitably natural backdrop for enjoying the food. And enjoy it you will, theres no riddle about that.
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