(Apologies in advance for the wordiness.)
Six of us celebrated a birthday dinner last night at the Japanese-style Korean barbeque restaurant Gyu-kaku in Torrance. My brother suggested it after having a favorable lunch experience at the West LA location. A post on this board also suggested that this was a fun alternative to a traditional steak house.
We had 7:00 reservations and were seated immediately in a large, bustling room full of thick wooden tables with heavy benches and gas-fueled charcoal grills. The decor is nouveau-rustique, a corporate-Japanese rendition of what, judging from a handful of Garden Grove sites, my Korean friends would consider to be old-fashioned bar-restaurants. The ambiance is festive and very noisy.
The menu offers two tasting courses and a variety of appetizers and a-la-carte dishes. The name Gyu-kaku, according to my Japanese sister-in-law, translates to beef cut into squares, and thats what youre here for. Between the six of us, we ordered a White Belt Course ($40.50 for two); a Black Belt Course (add shrimp and lamb at $54.50 for two); my dad ordered namuru salad ($4.95), albacore ($6.95) and asparagus in foil ($3.95); and my boyfriend ordered miso soup ($2.25), prime rib eye ($8.95), teriyaki chicken ($4.95), and fresh shiitaki mushrooms ($4.95).
The grills were already hot when we arrived. The beer was served quickly then 20 minutes later we were served a couple plates of ahi poke (part of the Black Belt course) each containing four bites of delicious Hawaiian-style fish per plate. Another 20 minutes passed before my sister-in-law asked about the edimame. Two bowls of very tender, fresh soybeans arrived immediately. Next came two plates with four kurubata sausages on each plate; theyre a smaller pork version of hot dogs. Tasty, with a very clean finish (this could be what hot dogs are like minus all the chemicals). Two more plates followed quickly, the kalbi (boneless, high quality meat, very light marinate), and cloyingly sweet skirt steak slices, harami miso. My boyfriends fresh mushrooms showed up: exactly four small shiitake buttons (hmmm, thats more than a dollar a piece).
We had to ask the server to slow down; he was bringing plates faster than the table space allowed. I started thinking about how a cook-it-yourself dinner can become unpleasant and chaotic if the timing isnt just right. In this case, I had a strong sense of hurry up and wait because the server was inexperienced. Before we could finish what wed been served so far, the charcoal had burned out and we had to wait for new coals to charge.
Salads came next, after letting the server know we were ready. The daikon radish salad (White Belt course) was nice, julienned bits of radish on top of lettuce with a nice miso dressing. The Gyu-Kaku salad (Black Belt course) was plain lettuce with a couple cherry tomatoes, a quartered hard-boiled egg, same dressing. I was perplexed that the four salad bowls were presented with eight small plates. I figured the idea was to share with the a-la-carte orderers. But they were only two of them. Hmm....
Kimchi is ordered separately from the appetizer menu, by the way, and we missed this fact completely until it was too late.
The salads were finished and we waited a while before we asked for the miso soups; I think the server was now gun-shy since wed asked him to slow down earlier. This is where the experience really took a bizarre turn: Six of us were served nine small cups of soup. My dad didnt even order any soup, so that left five who did. Worried and confused, we asked what was happening. Our server told us that this was because we ordered two White Belt courses (two soups each), two Black Belt courses (two soups each), and the a-la-carte soup that my boyfriend ordered added up to nine.
Wait a minute! Thats nuts! Why would four people order four courses that are clearly identified (in the price) as serving two people each? The server had botched the order and we, heretofore, had been served twice as much food as we should have (the reason I have gone into so much detail about the portions; forgive me). A manager came to intervene, asking why we ate all that food if we didnt order it. Well, none of us had ever ordered these courses before and wouldnt have known how much food was included. They were not generous servings and, with the exception of the sausages (we only ate half of them), the four of us had no trouble finishing what we were served. The kalbi and skirt steak were brought on single plates, how would we know how large the plates should be?
After things got straightened out and the manager apologized, promising to take care of us, we had to wait for another change of coals. Meanwhile, the miso soups were acknowledged as delicious by all; though my brother and sister-in-law were visibly shrinking in the embarrassment you feel when an unfavorable restaurant experience was your idea.
Once the grills were hot again, the final meat dishes with the correct portions resumed: two small shrimps each, barely infused with garlic, and one lamb popsicle each with a mild basil marinate (for the two of us with the Black Belt course). My boyfriend loved his tiny plate of rib eye, the teriyaki chicken was fine. But my fathers albacore, which looked strangely anemic, disappointed him to the core. It was tough, stringy, and three of us tasted it to the conclusion that though this couldnt be albacore, we couldnt imagine what it was.
Hailing our new server (the other one probably had a nervous breakdown with how crazy things had gotten), he had to take the plate to the kitchen before the dish was identified as "mountain tripe." The real albacore arrived and while it was fresh and flavorful, the three small pieces clung firmly to the grill and I couldnt get them off without ripping them into small flakes. My dad loved his buttery asparagus in foil that we steamed on the grill.
We had to ask for the assorted vegetables which came out with the steamed rice (White Belt course) and a very salty ponzu for the vegetables. Keep in mind, this is well after wed finished all the meats. The meal was such a disaster by now, Im sure we wouldnt have gotten all the plates except that we continually consulted the menu that was left. The Black Belt course comes with bi-bim-ba(p), dolsot style. This arrived at least ten minutes after wed finished the other rice and vegetables. I didnt care for it at all; I think it was just short-grained rice with a little mountain vegetable to which the server added a big dollop of Korean red pepper paste (gochu jang). He mixed it up so vigorously the rice was a mash and none of the lovely caramelization occurred that makes the dolsot style so wonderful.
I wondered why we got a third change of coals after we were finished with the main courses. Then four bowls of ice cream (the usual choices in Japanese restaurants) appeared with four Japanese pancakes and a couple mounds of sweet bean paste. My sister-in-law showed us how to grill the pancakes and made two sweet-bean-paste ice cream sandwiches out of them. Yummy.
By this time, I was seriously reevaluating my enthusiasm for cook-it-yourself barbeque. The meal had been hectic and not the least bit enjoyable. Interesting, yes, in an Ionesco kind of way. The house comped about a third of the meal (according to my darling sister-in-law who was so embarrassed she wouldnt split the bill with me); a nice gesture, but Im not sure Id go back on the basis of the food alone. The traditional Japanese dishes, like the miso soup, were mostly very good. No question that the quality of the meats is outstanding, but I think I simply like my Korean barbeque stronger and spicier than the more delicate Japanese variation. A trip to Soot Bull Jeep should put everything in back into perspective for me.
The website offers a look at a number of reviews, including an SIV posting (she says inexpensive----perhaps if ones accustomed her expense account, but most people wont get full here for under $30). Several other reviews appear to be abbreviated; David Rosengartens description of the portions as dainty pretty much hits the mark.