Last week the experience of hygge hit me right over the head — in the mouth, really. I may have been on a subconscious search for this en vogue Danish concept of coziness, but I certainly never expected to find it in a strip mall in Peabody.
The encounter didn’t involve slippers, or sheepskin, or Nordic cuisine. The New York Times once described porridge as a quintessentially hygge food, but I was hunched over a steaming bowl of fermented, fragrant kimchi stew. The sizzling hot stone bowl, the gently bubbling broth, a cup of chewy sticky rice to soak up every last drop — I felt a kind of calm, happy warmth that’s hard to come by on a frigid January afternoon on the outskirts of Boston.
K restaurant, opened three months ago, is the first for Gangwon Province-born Northeastern economics doctoral candidate Ryan Park. His focus is on making traditional Korean cuisine approachable to Westerners unfamiliar with bibimbap and bulgolgi.
Enter the simple, sparkling-clean restaurant to order at the counter. Framed prints hang on the walls with pictures and descriptions of Korean classics like ddukbokki, the springy rice cakes, and Korean barbecue.
There is a screen listing menu items, but a friendly woman who seems to always be working the counter will also offer you a laminated version before taking your order. Later she’ll ferry out dishes in their molten stoneware, and check in on your meal.
Start with gun-mandu ($8), dumplings with crispy pan-fried, paper-thin skins and a flavorful filling of cabbage and glass noodles. It’s tempting to eat a whole order of 10, but if you are dining alone, go for the $4 half-portion to save room for dolsot bibimbap ($12, or $10 without meat). A stone bowl arrives filled with steamed rice, topped with a veritable rainbow of vegetables, tofu or meat, and a fried egg. Until now, I thought spiralizers were only for sad imitations of spaghetti, but the delicate strands of daikon and carrot are positively cheery here. Heat fiends will want to add the accompanying savory hot-pepper paste. Our one complaint is the rice never develops the coveted crust on the bottom — a paella-esque socarrat — that is so appealing. Perhaps because we eat it too fast? We’ll have to return to test that hypothesis.
Park says that Korean food is quite healthy — a message he hopes to spread — and that K restaurant cooks meat to order, where many similar spots pre-cook the protein for bibimbap and other dishes.
Pork bulgogi ($14) is a fine version, with shreds of spicy marinated and stir-fried meat served with steamed rice, broccoli, and carrots. And LA galbee ($18), the sweet-and-salty, thin-sliced barbecue short ribs, is hard to stop eating. As I have during previous experiences gnawing the flavorful cross-sections of chuck, I find myself thinking I’d be fine trading in the ubiquitous braised version for these forever.
With plenty of meat on the menu, chowmyun ($9) is a satisfying departure of stir-fried noodles with onion, zucchini, pepper, and carrots. It’s a simple and flavorful Korean rendition of the chow mein you might get with Chinese takeout.
Back to the kimchi stew ($10), the one that eats like a warm hug. It arrives in its stone cauldron, brimming with the pickled cabbage, bits of tender pork, rounds of toothsome rice cakes, and a sprinkle of fresh scallions. Stir in the accompanying sticky rice and slurp away.
This tastes like home cooking, and it is. Though Park has big plans to become a kind of bibimbap ambassador, right now this is an intimate operation: His mother and father, Geumjae Lee and Yeong-Gwon Park, are back in the kitchen putting their 30 years of Korean-cooking experience to work. And the server-cum-counter person? That’s Reena Bhang, Park’s wife.
Before moving to Massachusetts, she completed her master’s in economics at SUNY Albany. The two have known each other since elementary school. Park’s not kidding when he says this is a family business. On our visits, the four are always working with the kind of giddiness that comes from starting something new, and the customers huddled in happy groups seem to feed off their enthusiasm.
If there is a Korean word for hygge — something that encompasses family, food, and warm fuzzies, plus hard work — K restaurant embodies it.
100 Lynn St., Peabody, 978-595-1889, www.krestaurant.us
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $8-$10. Entrees $9-$15.
Hours Tue-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
What to order Gun-mandu dumpling, kimchi stew, spicy pork bibimbap, LA galbeeCatherine Smart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.