Rarely have I willingly dined at a restaurant with a waterfall, and, until today, never have I even considered a meal in a restaurant that offers a choice of waterfalls. But that was before I sampled the fare at Kum Gang San (138–28 Northern Boulevard, 718-461-0909), a rambling leviathan of a Korean barbecue–cum–sushi bar–cum–wedding palace with indoor and outdoor cascades, located in Flushing, Queens.
I can find ethnic eats in my Cobble Hill neighborhood; but as is true in many New York enclaves, the Old Country foods there are the remnants of past waves of immigrants who have, for the most part, moved on to the suburbs and assimilated. One has the sense (and thankfully so) that the recipes and family ownership haven’t changed since 1904. With the Korean community in Queens, by contrast, one steps into a still-rising tide: In and among the Korean restaurants and fish stores of Flushing, Hangul characters also announce Korean-owned cappuccino bars, computer stores, and – the true mark of hopeful new arrivals – bridal shops.
Kum Gang San, which never closes, pulses with the energy and raucousness of growing families by day. The food comes quickly. The ingredients are fresh. The menu is constantly updated with seasonal ingredients. During the night shift, die-hard partyers eventually give way to greengrocers and fish retailers en route to predawn markets, or Town Car drivers on their way to pick up financially ambitious insomniacs wanting a jump on the Nikkei.
The menu offers the better-known Korean dishes: salaciously pungent and spicy kimchi (fermented cabbage and red-chili paste) and sweetly marinated short ribs, grilled at tabletop barbecues. But the adventurous diner will not be disappointed, as I found on a visit with David Cunningham, the sous-chef at Lespinasse, who was introduced to the restaurant by a Korean friend. We advised the waiters to disregard their preconceptions about the squeamishness of Western stomachs as we ordered panchan, Korean-style tapas: We could take it, no matter what its anatomical origin. Thus began a parade of at least a dozen delicacies that included crab claws with hot pepper, shredded scallions with sesame oil and pepper flakes, soy-marinated short ribs with garlic, and – a special treat of the day (or was it merely a test of our culinary commitment?) – an unusually tender cut of beef, sliced roasted calves’ ears with salt and crushed red pepper. For the finale, we were served two perfectly grilled Spanish mackerel, as sure a harbinger of spring as the first shoots of asparagus.
From the main courses, Cunningham chose tender panfried octopus with sliced raw onions, scallions, and a robust dose of chili. I enjoyed a combination of julienned raw beef with daikon, sweet rice vinegar, and raw egg yolk that produced a steak tartare with some sweetness and crunch. Of course, we had a scallion-and-seafood pancake, a thick, flavorful eggy crêpe that kids can be counted on to devour in the event that everything else on the menu defies their peanut-butter-dependent palates. The most unusual new taste proved to be thinly sliced pork belly, which was good and salty (not unlike corned beef), served with lightly fermented napa cabbage and briny raw oysters – the makings of a Saint Patrick’s Day lunch in New Orleans, right down to the hot sauce.
As the after-church crowd streamed in on a Sunday afternoon, we paused in the entry hall to examine a huge model of the sixteenth-century ironclad junk from which the legendary Admiral Yi Soon Shin had terrorized his enemies. Across from the replica of the smoke-belching, dragon-prowed ship, a big-screen television brought us the latest NCAA action. Cunningham made his farewells, explaining that he had to run home and change for his weekend gig as pipe major of the New York Scottish Pipes, Drums, and Dancers. As he left, I reflected gratefully that the New York melting pot is still at a roiling boil.
Open seven days, 24 hours. Come with a group and figure about $20 per person for a big meal. Wine, beer, cocktails. A.E., M.C., V.