The Solomon Korean Restaurant is about as informal an eatery as you’ll come across, short of pulling up a chair in someone’s kitchen. It’s got simple food and simple surroundings.
They’ve taken a stab at unifying the décor, though: the tables are glass circles on metal stands, with one wooden exception, and there are plenty of flowers and plants scattered about, from tulips to leaf-sprouting bamboo in a clear glass vase.
The unusual name of the place comes not necessarily from any biblical empathy, but rather because the Solomon Market used to be here, and why waste a perfectly good awning? The location also makes practical good sense, there on the Wickenden Street end of Benefit, near plenty of Brown and RISD students and sophisticated East Siders up for an ethnic taste treat.
The 20 items served are all proudly presented in small color photos in the window as well as on the menu. This is not fancy cuisine, though it comes out of a tradition with its share of royal banquet delicacies. Here the fare is more like the Korean version of down home cookin’. The country has a penchant for pickling, a way for farmers to preserve vegetables through the cold months. Living on a peninsula with a lot of coastline, Koreans eat lots of seafood. Their Buddhist heritage gives them lots of vegetable dishes. Meat preparations more often use pork in the North, and beef in the South.
Compared to most culinary traditions, there is also a lack of inhibition about combining meat and seafood. (OK, so the Portuguese have been known to put pork and clams together. Do you know that Koreans didn’t discover Portugal?) That curious juxtaposition was underscored for me in what looked on the menu to be an ordinary sushi roll: seaweed-wrapped slices of Kim Bob ($6.99). Choosing it for an appetizer on one visit, I was surprised to find that beef was bound up with such items as yellow pickled radish, julienned carrot, and surimi. The medley worked.
There is a limit, however. On another visit, I started with steamed dumplings ($6.99; also available fried), four of which were shrimp and four beef, and no attempt was made to force them into the same wrapper, a la traditional Vietnamese spring rolls. They were juicy and delicious.
Koreans are big on condiments, and foremost among these is kimchi. The fermented pickled vegetable can be many things, but is usually bok choy or Napa cabbage. It’s preserved with vinegar and garlic, and Solomon’s is a milder version than you’ll often get, and that I prefer. A second lagniappe was spicy-hot pieces of zucchini.
One reason I wanted to check out this place is because I love kimchi and noticed from the window that one dish contains it fried. Kimchi-beef fried rice has the item sautéed, accompanied by shredded beef, and tossed with flavorful chili paste. (The dishes were $9.99, unless otherwise specified.) The fermented bok choy was also a feature of tuna kimchi Ji-Gae, a medium-sized bowl of soup thick with cubes of tofu, bits of fresh fish, and rice, with more on the side, and a very spicy broth. My friend Stuart held up the bowl to inhale its fragrance and declared that it “smells like single-malt Scotch.” It was heady enough stuff to pass for a chunky version.
On our first visit, he much enjoyed the Ja Jang Myun, which featured shrimp, mussels, and squid over noodles, tossed with black bean paste, caramelized onion, and cucumber on the plate for cooling contrast. As enjoyable as the first visit was, we did even better on our return. The seafood Soon-Tofu came in a bowl, with the rice dish containing plenty of shellfish, as well as a delicate soft tofu, rather than the firm variety. It also held the surprise of a golden egg yolk bursting beneath it all.
Our favorite item of all the above was my last dinner dish: Dukbokgi ($8.99). I decided to have it with potato noodles ($3) rather than ramen ($2.50), and was glad of the choice. The noodles were quite firm, for a pleasant resistance when I expected a sodden mass. The sweet and slightly spicy sauce was delicious, as were the thin triangles of fish cake. Carrots and scallions were there for color. What were billed as “rice cakes” were tasty and looked like short sections of extra-firm mozzarella sticks. I’m having this dish again.
There are no desserts at this restaurant. Good. That leaves room for sharing one more exotic dish.
Solomon Korean Restaurant, 404 Benefit St, Providence | Mon-Sat, 11 am-9 pm | Major credit cards | BYOB | Sidewalk-level access | 401.621.9749
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Bill Rodriguez: firstname.lastname@example.org