Monday, September 24, 2012

Korean in the Capital Region: Kinnaree in Albany and Kabuki in Latham

There's something inherently fun about the dining experience at a proper Korean restaurant.  Proper, at least in my mind, starts with a generous serving of banchan, which are basically a variety of side dishes/appetizers served prior to your entree and included in the price of your meal.

An example of banchan
It's a safe bet that there will be some kimchi--the item most associated with Korean cuisine--as part of your banchan.  And that's a good thing; I'll often forget just how much I love that fermented cabbage until I have some put right in front of me.  But there are a lot (trust me: click on that link) of different dishes that can be part of banchan, which is part of the fun.  Sharing them, you can basically have a complete meal--from the mung beans to the always-delicious sweet soy-braised potatoes--if the restaurant dishes out eight or more small plates of banchan. The best we ever had was in Springfield, MO, of all places, at a restaurant named Soo's, where the banchan was plentiful and delicious and the servers would come by and ask if you wanted seconds.

So when trying out a pair of Korean restaurants (or, I suppose, to put it properly, Asian-fusion restaurants serving Korean food) in the Albany area, Kabuki Korean Restaurant in the Peter Harris Plaza in Latham, and Kinnaree Asian Restaurant on Lark Street in downtown Albany, it's hard not to start rating the experience based on the quantity and quality of the banchan.

But in this case, the banchan wasn't so special at either restaurant; it was the entrees that allowed one to stand clearly above the other.

Kabuki Korean Restaurant (Latham, NY)

Here we have a restaurant with "Korean" in its title, but with a sub-head that states, "Japanese Cuisine, Sushi, Tempura, and Teriyaki."  I can't help but be suspicious of any Asian restaurant that tries to cover the ground of more than one type of cuisine, but it had been a while since I'd had good Korean food, so of course I was willing to try Kabuki.  I assumed it would at least be better (or less weird) than the half-Korean, half-Italian restaurant we tried once in Massillon, OH (Go Tigers!).

Okay, so it wasn't strange at all in Kabuki.  In fact, it's pretty nicely done up for your average strip mall restaurant.  But the menu was confusing, the banchan scant and mediocre, and the entrees overpriced and disappointing.

The menu confusion and the prices go sort of hand-in-hand.  K and I visited Kabuki for lunch, but on the menu the BiBim Bahp (also known as bibimbap, among other spellings), which I ordered, was shown both as a lunch option and a dinner option.  Considering it was 1 p.m., I assumed I was getting the cheaper and, presumably, smaller portion.  You can see where this is going, I'm sure: a $14 order of a pretty unappetizing bowl of rice and soggy vegetables and tiny slivers of meat, not served in a clay pot, as Kabuki's online menu states, but in a white bowl.

Going back to my reference to the fun of a Korean meal, part of this comes with the way some Korean meals are sometimes served in sizzling clay or stone hotpots.  BiBim Bahp is generally served this way, which is important in that the rice on the bottom of the hotpot gets browned and crusty right there in front of you.

As it was, the dish was remarkably uninteresting, and the chili paste to be poured on the Bibim Bahp wasn't even that great.  Even so, K ended up stealing about half of the paste to use on her soup with pork dumplings because that dish, on its own, was pretty flavorless.  Flavorless dishes at a Korean restaurant?  Not something I would have ever expected.

Kinnaree Asian Restaurant (Albany, NY)

There had already been one occasion on which we walked right past Kinnaree on a Friday night only to fall into a trap of mediocre, overpriced food on Lark Street.  Cruising around downtown last week after our first visit to Huck Finn's Warehouse, we weren't about to make the same mistake twice.

I'm actually surprised it took us almost two months to get to Kinnaree, considering some of the fine reviews it's received since opening in early 2011.  I suppose that could be chalked up to the whole Asian-fusion thing, or the hassle of trying to park near Lark Street (though sometimes it's nice feeling like you're living in a lively, bustling city).  Anyway, the point is, Kinnaree is now high on our list of restaurants to return to in this town.

It was pretty quiet in Kinnaree for a Friday night, which is both good and bad--we got seated and served quickly, but we also want this place to do well.  Considering the neon sign in the window, I was pleasantly surprised at the look of the restaurant inside: cozy but clean with white tablecloths and a sharp, minimalist feel.

I'll admit that we were hoping for more banchan, as we received a serving of four small bowls to share between the two of us.  What we did have at least tasted better than the offerings at Kabuki (it was particularly nice to get some of those potatoes).  We also ordered a pair of fresh spring rolls for $5.95, which were plumped up a little too much by lettuce.  I'd prefer less lettuce and a lower price. 

Once we got our entrees, the banchan and spring rolls were distinctly in the rear view mirror.  This time, K was the one to get the Bi Bim Bab, and she paid the extra two dollars ($13 total) for the gob dol (hot stone pot) version.  The extra cost was well worth it, as we watched her dish continue to cook in front of her, the rice crisping up just enough before she tossed it together with the vegetables, egg, beef, and chili paste.  This was a dish that worked, from the flavors to the texture.

I ventured out with a dish I'd never tried before, the Kimchi Bokkeumbap ($11), which was a well-mixed combination of fried rice, pork, kimchi, onions, carrots, and sesame seeds.  The taste was bold and unique.  There was the backdrop of fried rice, but then the spicy hit of kimchi and the nice textural contrasts with the pork and vegetables.  This was a hearty, filling bowl of food, and I'm glad I went off the radar of familiar Korean dishes to try it.

After spending the last several years more than an hour from decent Korean food, it's nice to know that Albany has a Korean restaurant with strong-tasting, reasonably-priced dishes.  Yeah, I'd like to see half the table covered in banchan, but after one disappointing meal at Kabuki, I'm relieved to know that there is a satisfying option for Korean food in the area.  And based on what we had and what we saw on others' tables, we might even be willing to try something not Korean next time we're at Kinnaree.

Kinnaree Asian Restaurant is located at 193 Lark Street in Albany
Kabuki Korean Restaurant is located at 952 Troy-Schenectady Road in Latham

Banchan photo by Flickr user avlxyz, used under a Creative Commons attribution


  1. I still haven't tried out Kinnaree, but the Korean food situation has been disappointing me for a while. I guess coming from downstate and being used to living nearby H Marts and really good Korean restaurants (with neverending plates of banchan) spoiled me. Maybe a little too much.

    But I'll give it a go.

    1. "Neverending banchan" is one of the sweetest combinations of words.

      I can believe the disappointment up here. It's too bad Kinnaree doesn't do more with the banchan, but I have faith you might like some of their dishes.