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Friday, February 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dining Deals

Charming Japanese touches, superlative Korean food

Special to The Seattle Times

Akasaka


31246 Pacific Highway S., Federal Way; 253-946-3858

Korean/Japanese

$$

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-10 p.m. Saturdays, 4-10 p.m. Sundays.

Full bar / major credit cards / smoking and nonsmoking sections / no obstacles to access.

Rating: recommended.

Akasaka is the name of a Tokyo neighborhood, and Akasaka restaurant in Federal Way features a sushi bar and a full menu of Japanese dishes, none of which I have ever tried. So why am I reviewing it? Because Akasaka serves exquisite Korean food, so good that I've never made it over to the Japanese side of the menu.

Your Korean meal at Akasaka will begin with kim chi (pickled appetizers). The larger your party, the more types of kim chi you will receive — I've seen at least 12 different varieties. On a recent visit, we were served cabbage kim chi, spicy pickled cucumber slices, preserved fish cake, thin-sliced daikon, bean sprouts and edamame. OK, edamame isn't kim chi — I guess it sneaked over from the Japanese side.

The beauty of Korean pickles is their ability to straddle the line between preserved and fresh. Think of a pickle from a barrel in a good deli versus an old pickle from a jar. Kim chi, at its best, is like the deli pickle: fresh-tasting but briny and fermented at the same time. A good variety of kim chi will include a mix of spicy and mild options.

The other beauty of Korean pickles is their price: free with your meal.

The menu runs from the standards (bulkogi, short ribs and bi bim bap) to the more expensive beef intestines with tripe ($22.95) and enormous bowls of soup. The mae woon tang ($22.95), a spicy fish soup with your choice of snapper or black cod, is easily big enough to serve three. It's hot and reassuring, if a little bland, with loads of clams, tofu, vegetables and big chunks of fish.

As long as the food is good, a restaurant's decor usually doesn't make much of an impression on me. But Akasaka's goes the extra mile. I've never been to a Japanese inn, but I can't imagine it looks very different. The cleanliness, upkeep and attention to detail is admirable. Similarly, the service is consistently friendly and quick.

If you've brought the family to Akasaka, make a reservation for one of the tatami rooms. I've long believed that every restaurant, Japanese or otherwise, should offer tatami rooms. It's the closest you get in modern life to a private train compartment, and you can pretend that all sorts of intrigue is going on in the neighboring room.

Finally, I have to admit that the Japanese menu has its allure. Scallop-bacon yaki ($5.95) features pan-fried scallops with onions, bacon and squash. And I would never say no to saba shioyaki (salted broiled mackerel, $11.95).

But as much as I'd like to try Akasaka's versions of these dishes, I know that next time I go in, I'll pass a tatami room full of happy eaters and depleted kim chi bowls, and, in my mind, I will already be grilling up kalbi and chewing on the crispy rice skin of bi bim bap.

Check please

O-Jing-Au Bokum: This dish is as attractive as it is delicious. Squid (both rings and tentacles) is stir-fried with bell peppers, broccoli and other vegetables, along with red chili paste. Unless your mouth is fireproof, watch out for the slivered hot peppers.

Jap chae: The resilient noodles in this popular dish are made from sweet potato starch. They're stir-fried with vegetables, beef and soy sauce, leaving the noodles an attractive light brown and the overall dish chewy, beefy and totally satisfying.

Kalbi: At most Korean restaurants, short ribs are frozen and shaved into thin slices across the bone. At Akasaka, they're sliced accordion-style by hand, so you unfold a thin strip of beef and grill it at the table. Because these are short ribs, they're not the most tender, but the flavor is exceptional.

Itemized bill, meal for two

O-Jing-Au Bokum $9.95

Jap chae $9.95

Kalbi $14.95

Tax $3.24

Total $38.09

Matthew Amster-Burton: mamster@mamster.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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