- 4123 Oechsli Ave., Louisville, KY
- (502) 290-8900
- Overall User Rating:
- (0 ratings)
- Monday-Friday lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Monday-Friday dinner, 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, 12:30-10 p.m.
Home-cooking, Korean style. That’s Yeon Hee Chung’s passion. Give her half an opening, and she’ll tell you why Korean food is the best of all Asian cuisines. It’s healthier, she’ll say. It’s fresher. The flavors are big and bold. And at her new St. Matthews eatery, Charim Korean Restaurant, the dishes are prepared exactly as she’d prepare them if you dropped in at her home for a visit.
Charim, she says, translates loosely as “the table is set.” It’s a welcoming message, and you’ll not find a more welcoming restaurant. On a recent visit, Chung greeted every party with a warm, incandescent smile that overflowed with grace and enthusiasm.
In fact, everybody in the place seems enthusiastic, perhaps because Charim is one of those unlikely ventures that really do rise from a passionate desire to share something.
Chung came to the United States in 1989 when her husband matriculated at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her professional restaurant experience is pretty limited (she once worked as a server at a couple of local sushi restaurants). But she gained plenty of experience preparing meals for the congregation at her church. And for years she has been thinking about sharing her food more widely. So when she learned that an established restaurant space was available (the location previously housed a string of short-lived establishments), she recruited some friends and launched the business.
Few if any of her friends have professional restaurant experience, she says. And diners will likely detect signs of that (one night, when we dropped in with a party of four, each entree arrived at the table separately, with about a two-minute gap between each plate).
If you’re the sort who gets alarmed about such things, you might give Charim some time to smooth things over a bit, but if you’re patient and curious and don’t mind a bit of suspense at the table, you might as well leap right in. Heck, any home cook knows how difficult it is to get everything to the table at the same time.
Apart from the chicken fingers on the kids’ menu, Charim’s offerings are almost entirely focused on Korean cuisine: dumplings; jeon (pancakes stuffed with seafood or vegetables); spicy, hearty soups; grilled and marinated meats; and, of course, panchan — the complimentary bowls of pickled vegetables flavored with garlic and chilies that are a fixture of the Korean table.
At Charim, the panchan offerings include chili-tinged cabbage (kimchi); a tender roulade made from thin layers of herb-inflected egg, boiled peanuts, crisp slices of cucumber in a piquant crimson marinade; and the like.
Appetizers like Mandu (grilled vegetable dumplings, $6) and haemul pajeon (a seafood-scallion pancake, $11) were rustic, rather than refined; if the dumplings had a slightly oily look, the grilled veggies in the middle were moist and flavorful; and the thick green planks of scallion studded with chunks of grilled seafood and an eggy batter would have passed for country cooking pretty much anywhere in the world (well, anywhere in the world where pancakes are topped with calamari and shrimp).
A bowl of bibimbap ($13) arrived in a thick, heavy stone bowl, and featured plenty of bright vegetables, beef, sprouts and rice, topped with a raw egg that, when stirred into the mixture, cooked up and helped bind everything into a fine unit. (Though it would have been even finer if the mixture had welded to the bowl, forming the thick, satisfying crust that’s often a feature of the dish.)
There were no quibbles about the other dishes, however. Entree No. 9 (labeled chicken kal-bi, but which Chung later said was closer in spirit to chicken bulgogi, $15) was superb. Slices of tender chicken and bits of artfully carved vegetables marinated in a sweet-spicy red sauce looked like an Asian variation on the sort of pulled chicken you might find at a Southern barbecue — but with happy, chili-laden flavors.
In fact, many of the entrees are at once familiar and exotic — like the slices of splendidly tender beef bulgogi, gently flavored with soy, garlic and ginger, and plated with onions, scallions and carrots. The dish could pass for an Asian take on fajitas — except that it’s served on a bed of rice. Jeyuk bokkeum ($15) is marinated pork in a spicy chili sauce. (All the spicy items are clearly labeled on the menu, but the default spice levels won’t challenge the palates of true pepper-heads). And just in case winter ever returns, Charim offers plenty of soup entrees, like one that features soft tofu, clams and shrimp in a spicy broth ($12).
E-mail freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.