With his sleek and spacious Bull Pan emporium now open on lower Summer Street in Stamford, Paul Ma plans to introduce the region to a fun, mouth-watering secret: Korean BBQ.
Of all Asian cuisines, Korean may be the most flavor forward, zestier than Japanese and considerably more authentic than the Chinese-American imposters that clutter our culinary landscape. Although its savory flavors appeal to a Western palate, this iteration of Asian food is the least known in America. Outside of the K-Towns in New York and California, Korean restaurants have not been easy to find in the hinterlands.
(Egane opened on Bedford Street a decade ago, but dark and dank, sharing space and aromas with a Mongolian BBQ, it eventually shuttered.)
Ma came to Stamford from Queens because the city has become a dining hot spot with a palpable urban feel.
He began by hiring Kim Yeong Gon, one of America’s most revered Korean chefs, to supervise the meat menu. Over the years, he has created and mastered the art of dry aging and marinating Korean beef and pork. Together they have curated a menu that honors Ma’s late mother and her exquisite cooking.
After surveying the ala cart entrees, we opted for the “Beef Combo” an assortment of meats and sides to be shared by the four people in our party. Tray after tray was brought to the table by assorted servers, resulting in a banquet of raw steak and ribs surrounded by what Koreans call Banchan. These are sides, and they include fermented veggies such as radishes and Kimchi, the addictive side dish that foodies have come to love, a bowl of corn and cheese reminiscent of Mexican Elote, a seafood pancake, stew, steamed egg, two sauces, and a plate of vibrantly green romaine lettuce leaves.
The resplendent layout promised a festive, ravishing, sui generis feast, fit for an emperor. (Which was precisely how Korean nobility once dined, replete with silver chopsticks that would change color if there were any poisons planted in the food. Indeed, our settings included metal chopsticks and spoons, unique to the Korean table.)
The ceremony began. The server ignited the barbeque in the center of our table, placed a thick marbled rib eye steak on the hot grill, cooked it to order, and then surprisingly cut the meat into in small pieces.
Though a luscious hunk of steak might be the star of an American meal, in Korea meat plays a supporting role to the rice, veggies and sauces. The lettuce leaf is used to wrap those bits and Banchan into a small, bite sized packet called Ssam.
The entire pouch goes in your mouth, exploding on the palate with myriad tastes and textures. The flavors include savory, succulent, pungent, sweet, and rich, some sides chewy and others crunchy.
Next you build another Ssam, the algorithms of sauces and veggies unique to each packet, each bite. Every packet a new party in your mouth.
But wait. The meats don’t end with the steak. The server next barbequed a boneless short rib, followed by marinated rib. Each bite distinctive. Delicious. And seemingly endless. Our table devoured it all, then didn’t eat the next day.
We will be back. Next time, the order will include the brisket. Chef Kim serves only the prized middle of the cut, well marbled and flavor rich. The less tasty 4/5 of the brisket is reserved for the stews, which can be ordered ala carte. Steaming stews and soups play a large role in the country’s cuisine, helping Koreans brave the island’s bitter winters.
On another visit (yes, we plan to return here often) I will order Kot-sal, the restaurant’s signature Wagyu steak. It’s rated A-5, the highest rank given to the finest beef. Though the price point may be $55, the dish is actually a loss leader at Bull Pan and a bargain for the diner.
“We want our customers to know we work with only the best of ingredients,” Ma told us. This cherished Wagyu is served without a wrap. “Nothing should detract from its juicy flavor,” the restaurateur explained. The sole focus must be on the steak’s velvety texture and rich, delicate taste. The owner considers this meat as the rock star of his show.
We wondered about the smoke from the barbecue. There was none. Nor did we spot any overhead vents, as in most BBQ restaurants. Instead, Bull Pan deploys a crafty down draft system which sucks the smelly smoke into the bottom of the table and away from the customers and their clothes.
That advanced tech is just one aspect of Bull Pan’s 21st Century modernity. The space is open, minimalist, and sleek. Ceiling to floor windows bring in warm light for lunch and early dinner. Polished wood predominates everywhere. A long, 22 seat community table and a lustrous bar occupy the first floor, and more private seating can be found on the spacious balcony.
At night, the place is packed, and warmed by festive barbecues, a party atmosphere prevails. Despite the revelry, the acoustics allow for unfettered conversation.
Our only quibble: Ma doesn’t include any Asian beers on the menu.
“They’re coming,” he assures us. “Along with catering, takeout and delivery.
Unlike other Asian restaurants, where service can be stiff, somewhat remote and restrained, a Korean restaurant exudes an easy, congenial and welcoming atmosphere. Inclusive not exclusive. The wait staff seem happy to take time to educate their guests about the country’s unique cuisine.
Because they also cook at the table, the service is labor intensive. Since the servers require extensive training, Ma has been in soft opening since the middle of May. He will announce a Grand Opening soon.
Though not yet fully polished, Bull Pan has already become a promising addition to Stamford’s diverse restaurant scene.
485 Summer Street (203) 569-9618 Sun-Thur 11:30-10:30 Fri-Sat 11:30-11:30