In the life of a neighborhood restaurant, change requires a leap of faith. Just ask the Choe family, who recently dismantled their sushi bar and put Korean cuisine front and center. Formerly Manna Sushi, their establishment is now Manna House Korean & Japanese Cuisine. While teriyaki and tempura occupy a modest space on the menu, the emphasis is on authentic Korean fare.
Chef SungJo Choe and his wife, SungAe Choe, opened the restaurant five years ago on a quiet side street in Arlington Center. Sushi was intended to attract customers unacquainted with Korean cuisine, but the ubiquitous Japanese favorite did not draw crowds. Earlier this year, the couple revamped the menu to showcase the food of their native Seoul. SungJo Choe’s parents immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1980s and opened the first Korean restaurant in Boston, according to the couple’s oldest daughter, InAe. Manna House continues that tradition. “We are a third-generation restaurant family,” she says, serving dishes as they come out of the kitchen.
Panchan, the little complimentary dishes that accompany a traditional Korean meal, arrive first, including tofu simmered in chili and sesame oil, soft steamed bean sprouts with scallions, and a tangle of miniature baby anchovies broiled to crunchy perfection. The kimchi is made by SungAe Choe. The garlicky fermented Napa cabbage is cool, crunchy, and pungent with red chili. It shows up finely minced in kimchi seafood pancake ($14.95). Unlike versions that are more lumpy than crepe-like, this appetizer is finely textured, crisp on both sides, and full of tender shrimp and calamari. Seafood is also expertly handled in soon tofu jigae ($12.95), soft tofu soup in shrimp and pork stock with green-lipped mussels. The faint-hearted need not be scared by the slick of red chili oil floating on the bubbling dish; it lends more flavor than heat to the custard-soft tofu.
Okdol bibimbap ($12.95) arrives in a sizzling black stone bowl. The dish features hot white rice, crunchy on the bottom, topped with artfully composed steamed spinach, julienned carrots, the meat of your choice (we liked beef), marinated burdock root, and an over-easy egg. The yolk begs to be broken at once, but give the rice time to form a delectable crust before mixing everything with the long-handled metal spoon.
The revamped menu features a couple of items new to many. Soon dae bokum ($16.95) is a dark, richly flavored dish of Korean sausage, finely chopped vermicelli noodles, and vegetables stir-fried in soy sauce, garlic, and chili pepper. The dish is topped with a chiffonade of perilla leaves and toasted perilla seeds. One of my dining companions agrees that this dish calls for hot rice and a cold beer – or soju, a distillate of grain and sweet potatoes (the restaurant serves both beverages). Also in the new category is gamja tang ($17.95), a rustic stew of pork backbones of substantial size and heft, chunks of potato, and fluted glutinous rice cakes, in chili-infused broth. This one packs heat. SungAe Choe comes by with two forks to shred the meat off the bone. Soon after, she encourages us to pick up the bones and eat with our hands.
There are a few misses, but they are more a matter of preference than faulty preparation. Jop chae ($12.95) is a dish of springy vermicelli noodles and vegetables sauteed in a too-sweet sauce. While the broth of clam jigae ($16.95) is deliciously briny, these mollusks are too chewy to enjoy.
The word manna was chosen for the restaurant name, explains InAe Choe, because it’s a biblical food. In Korean, manna means “tasty.”
With the sushi bar a distant memory, we couldn’t agree more.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at email@example.com.