At the beginning of this decade, the Korean food available in the Bay Area was so weak that S.F.’s Consul General of South Korea — a trained diplomat! — all but said you had to go to L.A. to eat well. (He did recommend the Santa Clara location of Jang Su Jang, however.)
How times have changed.
There had long been standbys like Han Il Kwan, but their offerings were too-often muted. Now we have power-dives like Larkin Street’s ARIA and food-truck-turned-regional-chain KoJa Kitchen. Namu Gaji and its spinoff Namu Stonepot are each expanding; Namu Gaji is moving into the much-larger space that used to be The Perennial while Namu Stonepot is opening a second location in the original Namu Gaji. Queens, the year-old, online-only Korean deli has put down roots in the Inner Sunset — not far from the new and barbecue-heavy Um.Ma. Not even Filipino food, forever overlooked until recently, has made its presence newly felt by that much.
But Korean food’s top end had been slower to catch up until now. Just down the block from the always-packed second location of Fiorella, SSAL has been open since April and very slowly adding to itself. Over several visits through the course of the summer, it’s revealed itself to be an increasingly confident endeavor with an impressive aesthetic unity. But it didn’t entirely start out that way. At first, SSAL would have at most two entrees on the menu, making it hard to want to go back once you’ve tasted them both on your first visit. There was a third, an uni-and-roe-over-egg-and-rice dish, but its availability was specifically denoted as “limited” and it never seemed to be there no matter how close to 5 p.m. this reviewer sailed in. Plus the off-white walls were jarringly bare and the plywood benches distinctly uncomfortable.
Neither romantic nor especially neighborhood-y in price, SSAL had an incomplete feel — like a place you might check out once only to discover three-eighths of a restaurant.
Well, the walls are still bare and the benches are best avoided — sit at the bar and watch the food prep — but SSAL really has opened up. The space isn’t entirely devoid of personality, with a cold-cathode light fixture reminiscent of the one at Ritual Coffee on Valencia Street, and the pebble that functions as a paperweight on the check might look like a human molar (so goth!). Owners Hyunyoung and Junsoo Bae, who’ve been married for a year, seem disinclined to roll out anything until it fits into their harmonious vision — which is notably not all that devoted to quote-unquote traditional Korean dishes.
There’s quite a pedigree here, too: Junsoo is the chef, and he’s worked at Meadowood and New York’s Gramercy Tavern, from which much of the opening staff was poached, while Hyunyoung was a server at The French Laundry.
Anecdotally, it seems they’re finally making enough of that uni-and-roe dish, which turns out to be one of those magnificently simple things where it’s impossible to keep your eyes open as you let it melt in your mouth. In Korean restaurants, chopsticks are often metal, and that’s the case here, although SSAL’s bowls match, making one server’s description of the uni as an “unctuous pot of gold” rather apt.
Other dishes land right where they should. A spring-onion pancake with Monterey squid and dried shrimp feels nearly as delicate as fried squash blossoms with a rat-a-tat of salty flavor. Like a bowl of ramen that an Italian restaurant in the Eastern time zone might attempt for a lark, the clam noodles (with broccolini and garlic bread crumbs) are witty and light enough on broth that the toppings stay crisp — except on one visit, the liquid was so deliriously buttery that you couldn’t properly call it a broth. Subtler but no less worth your time is the plate of roasted mushrooms. Bell peppers, the ultimate in flavorless crunch, are an ingredient, but you’d almost never know it because they’re basically folded into the miyaki, wood ear, and enoki mushrooms along with plenty of pickled burdock (an ingredient Junsoo seems to adore).
Joining the grilled short rib is a Berkshire pork collar, both of which are served the same way: ssam-style, as a do-it-yourself wrap. The meat is sliced, with very lightly pickled radishes and intensely flavored “ssam vegetables” on the side, plus a selection of lettuces presented from a wooden box as if they were just plucked from the soil. But the best use of greens was in the fried perilla leaves, a Korean ingredient akin to a physically large shiso, here wrapped around shrimp with plenty of chives for a dim-sum feel. Beyond little surprises, SSAL can occasionally play it safe, with lots of oysters, duck liver mousse, halibut crudo, and beef tartare — stuff you can find all around town in 2019.
That abundance of safe savory items would appear to set diners up for crushing disappointment at dessert, which — let’s be brutally honest — has often been the Achilles’ heel in many Asian restaurants and which is now just vanishing from menus everywhere. In June, that assumption was at best half-true: The vaguely French option of a fresh doughnut with roasted soybean cream had breakout-hit potential, but it was the only option. Now it has companions, including the redundant injeolmi cream puffs — “injeolmi,” we were told, means “cream puff” — and a sexier-than-it-sounds scoop of rice-flavored ice cream with toasted rice on top.
The final piece in this interlocking puzzle is wine, and it’s a piece you insert with a gentle touch. The Scribe Pinot Noir rosé stands on its own, but both the Chateau La Grangère Bordeaux and the Domaine Gros Frere et Sour Pinot shared the same characteristic, which one dining companion described as a “softness that doesn’t get crushed” against the food. I love 10 pieces of ARIA’s Korean fried chicken when they’re slathered in garlic soy sauce just as much as anyone, but in SSAL we have something wholly new.
2226 Polk St., 415-814-2704