By Ruth Schechter
For those of you who still like to play with your food, I have a socially acceptable suggestion: Go Korean.
Ginseng BBQ & Tofu allows you to cook your own food on a gas grill fitted right into the table. It's all very civilized — a server brings you your platter of marinated meat, chicken or pork, and you and your party can take it from there.
Of course, there are several selections in which the kitchen does the preparation. But there's something about cooking over a hot grill that makes food taste better, and the whole process is pretty entertaining.
Ginseng has a modern vibe: Walls are colored cinnabar and mustard, and the high ceilings are networked with oversized industrial stainless steel vents. Centered in each table are two stainless grill covers (the circular one is no longer used as the menu has changed since the restaurant opened in 2008).
While the dinner menu is not especially long, there is a good variety of different cuts of meat to sample, from pork belly to short ribs and brisket. After you place your order the server uncovers the grill and turns up the heat. Within minutes, the meat is ready to sizzle. That means that heaping platter of beef bulgogi ($13) or chicken bulgogi ($13) gets prepared just the way you like it — unless you get distracted from your duties and forget to move things around with your chopsticks. Generally your meal stays fresh and literally hot off the grill.
Bulgogi is thinly sliced meat marinated in a mix of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, chili, sugar and green onions. While the big appeal at Ginseng is the hands-on approach to dinner, most dishes can also be prepared and brought out bubbling on a cast-iron skillet.
For variety, we ordered the pork golgogi ($12) from the kitchen and enjoyed the simple, spicy preparation almost as much as our own efforts. The tofu soup ($10) was a generous cauldron of flavorful broth still actively boiling and loaded with chunks of silken tofu and mushrooms. Be warned about spice levels: We were relieved we settled for mild heat since even the sissy level had a lot of zing.
Be sure to try the seafood pajun ($10) a delectable egg pancake studded with scallions, shrimp and vegetables. Served on a bamboo steamer, it was crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, and one of the table's favorite dishes.
Meals are served with an assortment of small dishes known as banchan, which can be used as condiments or eaten as snacks. While the selection was colorful — theoretically these dishes are supposed to cover the gamut of flavors and textures — ours tended to be bland and added little to the meal. Our little dishes of dipping sauces, fish cake, kimchee, broccoli, mung sprouts and potatoes were largely left untouched.
Servings are very generous, and most of the golgogi must be ordered for two, so Ginseng is best with a group. The restaurant also offers an all-you-can-eat option for $18 a person. However, because of the layout of the grill, people on one side of the table will be saddled with doing most of the cooking unless you are friendly enough to skip good manners and just start reaching across the table.
While grill-your-own is not offered at lunch, there are several variations of dohl soht bi bim bob ($9.95) an immense stone pot consisting of a bottom layer of rice, shredded carrot and zucchini, bean sprouts and meat, topped with a fried egg. Mixing the ingredients scrambles the egg inside the sizzling bowl and mixes the flavors together beautifully. The pork lunch box ($6.95) is an oversized bento with compartments for deeply seasoned bits of pork, purple rice, an iceberg salad, tasty jap chae (cellophane noodles stir-fried in sesame oil) and one cold, dry and inedible dumpling.
Service was attentive initially, and our server was very patient about explaining the nuances of Korean cooking to the ignorant. However once the table started to get loaded up, we were pretty much left on our own. Our water glasses remained unfilled, our dishes uncleared, and we had to almost beg for our check.
C'mon. Just because I'm doing the cooking doesn't mean I want to be ignored. Other than the poor follow-through in service, Ginseng BBQ & Tofu offers a great value in flavor and do-it-yourself tableside entertainment.
Ginseng BBQ & Tofu
475 Castro St., Mountain View.