When I drove by Minsok, it appeared to be yet another Brookline sushi place. The biggest sign on display was for all-you-can-eat sushi, offered on Tuesday and Wednesday nights for $24.95. But when I stopped in for a look, I saw a server carrying an enormous mound of something, and asked what it was. Out came a special menu for “live sashimi” ($85/small; $130/medium; $180/large; $250/extra-large). Two of us ordered a small, which turned out to be a substantial multi-course dinner. On two more visits, it became clear that Minsok is mainly a very serious Korean restaurant, rather than a Japanese sushi place, with waitresses in traditional costume and menus full of untranslatable but delicious and novel treats. The more familiar Korean dishes are also quite good. I wasn’t even tempted to try the all-you-can-eat sushi.
The “live sashimi” — which is not actually served alive; the fish had been taken from the tank and sliced quickly for maximum freshness — started with an exquisite seafood-rice soup, thick as Chinese congee, and was well-flavored with chopped scallops and mussels.
Then came a course of small plates, including soybeans in the pod, seaweed salad, salmon and white-fleshed-fish sashimi, and six California maki (all Japanese things), plus shredded raw squid in a hot ketchup, some raw white fish in a spicy mayonnaise, a piece of salmon-tail teriyaki on the bone, a sizzling platter of hot kernels of field corn, a couple of steamed New Zealand mussels . . . it just went on an on. What, no kimchee? Yes, there it is: some pretty crisp Napa-cabbage kimchee with red pepper on it.
The mound that I had seen the server carrying turned out to be shredded daikon. But atop it was most of a pound or pound-and-a-half blackfish, what New England fisherman would call tautog. It’s not usually served as Japanese sashimi, perhaps because its firm flesh is somewhat tough and chewy when raw. But the flavor is wonderful, with the slight sweetness of really fresh fish. We were each equipped with a two-hole dipping dish, one for the Japanese-style soy/pickled-ginger-wasabi dip, the other for the spicy Korean ketchup.
Around the mound of blackfish sashimi were four other species. Scallops and abalone were similar to Japanese sashimi, but sea cucumber and sea squirt were new to me. I’ve had sea cucumber as an addition to Chinese stews, but raw sea cucumber is somewhat gelatinous and chewy, though very nicely flavored. I think sea-cucumber tartare might be a winner. Sea squirt, a somewhat barrel-shaped invertebrate, is more resinous than cherrystone clams, with a flavor strong enough to dominate hot sauce. I think I’ll try steamed sea squirt next to see if that tames the flavor, but squirt fritters might be more my style.
Next came a spicy seafood hot pot made from the bones, head, frame, and flesh of the blackfish. If you don’t mind picking through a lot of bones (and being even more careful about tiny-but-deadly slices of green hot pepper), the blackfish is really fabulous in this stew. It came with another array of side dishes: lightly pickled cucumber with hot pepper, a kimchee of pickled turnip, bowls of fragrant rice — Korean rice is stickier but also more fragrant than most Chinese-restaurant rice — pickled yellow squash, and marinated mushrooms. Wow.
The complimentary dessert with this and most dinners is a little bowl of what tastes like curds and whey. It’s not a typical American’s idea of a dessert, but it’s refreshing after such strong flavors.
As for the more familiar Korean food, it’s also excellent. The Mandu appetizer ($5.95) is like Beijing ravioli, here steamed or deep-fried, and filled with meat or tofu and vegetables. The dipping sauce is loaded with chili, and I kept it around for later. Seafood pancake ($12.95) is a full 14-incher, loaded with scallions and garnished with squid, shrimp, and a scallop or two. I found it less greasy and starchy than what most of the competition serves, and a better appetizer than, say, the seafood pancake at Koreana.
Bibimbap ($10.95) is a fun rice plate with a variety of fresh and lightly pickled vegetables, anchored by chopped beef and a fried egg. Kalbi gui ($16.95) is one of my favorites: short-rib beef sliced quite thin and done up with soy-garlic marinade that delivers great flavor. Seafood jap chae ($13.50) is a stir-fry of cellophane noodles with straw mushrooms, white mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, shrimp, scallops, and squid. Kan pung ki ($14) is a step up from General Tso’s chicken: batter-fried (but lightly so) boneless chicken meat in a stir-fry with dried chilies (pick them out) and lots of flavor.
A Japanese entreé, shrimp and vegetable tempura ($15), was also subtly Korean-ized, beautifully fried and crisp. The dipping sauce, however, is not the familiar soy-based variety but something subtly sour. The shrimp vanish quickly, but the vegetables run to starchy ones. Tempura-fried potatoes are much more in the Korean cold-climate mode — a meat-and-potatoes cuisine that non-Asian-Americans often like — rather than that of the subtle, meditative flavors of Japanese food.