I have to admit a weakness for food that is cooked or finished at the table. Whether it be a dipping bread into a steaming pot of melted cheese, wedge shaped raclette creations or just assemble-it-yourself crispy duck pancakes, I love the conviviality of sharing food with friends and the freedom to play with your food. Do-it-yourself dinners allow you to experiment with flavors and to customize each bite. I also love the less interactive and more spectacular teppanyaki tables. As a teenager my birthday wish was usually a visit to Benihana, not just because the food was delicious, but because I always enjoyed the show.
When I saw the barbecue tables on my first visit to Kaya, I was intrigued by this new variation on table top cooking. Although I have eaten bulgogi and kalbi, I had not experienced Korean barbecue. At Kaya the gas grills are inset into the center of the table, and covered with a flat metal cover when not in use. The grill surface is removable and ours was changed out between different dishes. The barbecue section of the menu lists about 10 different barbecue options and we tried a seafood mixed grill, kalbi (beef short ribs) and pork belly.
The cooking was mostly done by the servers, slightly awkwardly as they had to reach over the long table. Occasionally we were left to our own devices. Above you can see one of the servers cutting the short ribs off the bone.
The server gave us a fairly cursory explanation of how to eat the barbecue and I was glad that I had done some reading beforehand. The table was filled with an array of banchan (side dishes) as well as the various accoutrements for the barbecue.
We were provided with a large pile of lettuce leaves and for the seafood and kalbi we were advised to take a lettuce leaf, smear on some fermented soy bean paste, dip our meat/ fish into the salt and sesame oil mixture and place it onto the lettuce leaf. Add some of the salad, roll and eat. Kimchi was an optional extra.
The salad was one of my favorite parts of the meal. A variation on pajori (scallion salad) it contained slivers of scallion, thinly sliced lettuce and a dressing which included liberal quantities of sesame oil, sesame seeds and Korean chili powder. I would happily have eaten a plate of it and will definitely try making it at home. As a result my overstuffed rolls were somewhat ungainly to eat.
The pork belly was a slightly different routine. Instead of lettuce leaves the wrapper was thinly sliced pickled daikon. The sweet pickle was a good counterpoint to the fatty pork belly.
While I obviously appreciated the DIY approach at the table, there seemed to be a downside: with all the dishes, the proteins ended up on the wrong side of chewy. Was this due to our inexperience, our server’s lack of attentiveness, insufficient marinade, the heat of the grill, or a combination of all of the above? I’m glad to have had the experience of Korean barbecue, but next time I might just let the chef do the grilling.