She and I are sitting in a big red-upholstered booth in Arirang Garden, Yong Nypaver's pretty Korean restaurant in Lyndhurst, sipping pungent roasted corn tea, contemplating the sinus-clearing virtues of kimchee (that fermented cabbage condiment peculiar to the Korean pantry), and bobbing our heads to an upbeat Muzak version of Katrina & the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine."
"You know," says Nan confidentially, her eyes dancing around the room, watching for our bustling server, "the last time I was here, my friend and I ordered BiBimBap."
The classic Korean dish, served in a massive black stone pot, is an amalgam of rice, veggies, and meat, topped with a sunny fried egg and sided by a little saucer of thick, intricately flavored, brick-red chili paste.
"When she brought the food to the table, our waitress asked us if we knew how to prepare it," she continues. "We admitted we didn't, so she picks up my friend's chopsticks and just starts beating the bejeebers out of his BiBimBap, mixing up the egg and the rice and the beef as hard as she can; then she pours on the hot sauce and beats it some more!
"Well, I'm figuring this is what I should be doing, too, so I unwrap my chopsticks and start stirring my rice and meat," Nan continues, tracing lazy circles in the air with her utensils, by way of demonstration. "So I'm stirring away, and she gets done with my friend and turns to look at me. After about a second, she gets this frown on her face, grabs the chopsticks out of my hand, and starts beating my rice! Obviously, I wasn't doing it fast enough to suit her!"
It is at this very moment, as if on cue, that our waitress appears with our entrées, which include, for Nan, a sizzling pot of HaeMool BiBimBap, a seafood variation of the dish in question.
"You know how to prepare this?" the waitress asks, reaching automatically for Nan's chopsticks.
"Yes, yes!" Nan gasps, clutching her chopsticks to her chest like a crucifix. "Yes, see? I beat it really hard!" And she proceeds to give the dish the thrashing of a lifetime.
Our dark-haired waitress watches her doubtfully for a moment or two. Then, finally convinced that Nan displays the proper enthusiasm, she smiles and moves away.
Nan beams proudly at her accomplishment. "That's why I love ethnic dining," she sighs.
The sense of cross-cultural communion that results from eating outside one's own heritage is, of course, one of the main reasons we sample foreign cuisine, and at Arirang Garden, the process is pleasantly simple. While a traditional Korean kitchen cranks out some devilishly hot dishes -- Koreans having embraced the use of chili pepper sometime in the 16th century -- many other favorites are relatively mild and delicate, and the large menu here contains plenty of both types of cooking. Choices range from mellow tofu and noodle dishes to "hot pots" for two, featuring ingredients like beef intestines, tripe, and vegetables floating in a peppery broth. For the most part, we passed over the dishes labeled "spicy" or "very spicy" in favor of more moderate ones, predominately seasoned with green onion, soy, ginger, sesame oil, garlic, and vinegar. As a result, if our dining experience had a flaw, it was that our choices shared a similarity of taste that made them hard to describe beyond calling them "mild," "vaguely sweet," or "a bit salty."
The limited flavor lexicon also applied to the traditional banquet of condiments -- little bowls of variously pickled and spiced foodstuffs -- that accompanied our meals. (Even though they arrive before the entrées, these are not appetizers; rather, they are intended to be enjoyed with the main events.) The assortment varies with what the kitchen staff has on hand, but always includes kimchee, the moderately spicy cabbage preparation that proved to be the most peppery of the lot. Other tidbits included strips of firm, meaty daikon radish, with a sneaky hint of natural fire; thickly sliced cucumber in a light, sweet soy-and-sugar dressing; limp steamed bean sprouts with a briny saltiness; and, my favorite, chewy roasted soybeans, wrapped in a mellow glaze of soy and honey that brought to mind old-fashioned oven-baked beans.
Korean barbecue is perhaps the best-known aspect of the cuisine, and the menu here offers a variety of marinated and barbecued meats and seafood. While the cooking process is traditionally a do-it-yourself proposition, with guests tending to their meat at their own little tabletop stove, at Arirang Garden, tableside cooking is available only if two or more diners choose a barbecued dish; otherwise, the meal is prepared in the kitchen and brought to the table, ready-made. We tried kitchen-completed versions of Wang Kal Bi, two chewy but flavorful flame-broiled beef shortribs, marinated for a full 12 hours in a broth of kiwi and pear juices and spices, and Chicken Bul Go Gi, a generous portion of skinless, well-trimmed breast meat with an enticingly smoky aroma. Both dishes, prepared without any additional oils or fats, were served on beds of sautéed onion atop sizzling platters, sided by steamed rice and a sweet-hot "barbecue sauce" of soy, sugar, jalapeño pepper, and sesame oil.
Beyond the barbecue and the variations on BiBamBap, we also enjoyed a generous tangle of mild Chap Chae, a popular noodle dish of translucent vermicelli-type pasta tossed with sliced cabbage, mushroom, onion, and a bit of shredded beef. Like most of the entrées, the Chap Chae came with rice and a choice of scallion-infused beef broth or a small salad tossed with a sweet soy-and-jalapeño-pepper dressing.
While the entrée portions were generous, the ample appetizer plates were certainly meant to be shared. Among our favorites was a serving of three big green-onion and seafood "pancakes" -- HaeMool Pajun -- with a delicate texture and eggy aroma that reminded us of Chinese egg foo yung. Our other choice, eight fat pork-beef-vegetable-and-tofu-stuffed pot stickers known as Gun Man Doo, were moist, tender, and, like many of the dishes, prettily garnished with artful "flowers" and "feathers" carefully carved from radishes, carrots, and cucumbers.
Besides the big collection of Korean dishes, Arirang Garden also serves a smaller selection of Japanese items, like tempura, teriyaki, and Udon noodles, and even has a little sushi bar, which is unfortunately located in the restaurant's smoking section. Despite the potentially odoriferous setting, the restaurant's Korean sushi chef turns out fresh-tasting and artfully presented sushi, featuring all the usual seafood favorites as well as a less common vegetarian item, kampyo maki, made from strips of tender gourd simmered in a tongue-tingling blend of sugar, soy, sake, and stock. (A daily sushi buffet luncheon, with more than a dozen types of sushi, as well as soup, salad, and an assortment of Korean entrées, is a bargain at $12.95.)
When the restaurant opened in December 1998, the menu included some tasty-sounding French-inspired pastries for dessert. However, current choices are limited to commercial ice creams -- including a green-tea version, with its unique juxtaposition of sweet yet vegetal flavors -- and a tropical coconut-pineapple concoction that brought to mind piña coladas. Both were perfectly fine, but not compelling enough to stop us, after our second visit, from swinging by the nearby East Coast Custard location for a more voluptuous homemade treat.
As Nan says, ethnic dining is great. You just have to know where to draw the line.