I've always had a love-hate relationship with Korean food outings; sure, it's generally a great - and LOUD - time with lots of friends, but man, the copious amounts of heavy foods that we end up shoveling down while gulping Hite/OB beers by the gallon (and if it's a celebratory event; birthday, job promotion, being "funemployed," Tuesdays..., we may be downing pints of soju too!) Of course, this leads to no shortage of moanings and groanings the day after, whether from the hangovers, the sloshing beached whale belly and/or the still vampire-repelling garlic odor all over your clothes & breath.
Being a "Contemporary Korean" restaurant with a Californian-fusion twist, the fermented pungency, spiciness and garlickiness has been toned down a bit, but the dishes were still very flavorful and refreshingly light, such as:
Their take on the dukbokki, rice cakes stir-fried in a tangy-sweet-spicy sauce with fresh veggies. Not too greasy and not too heavy.
Bibimnoodles, also with more fresh veggies plus tempura flakes, half-boiled egg and a spicy-chili sauce, wonderfully presented before the ever-enthusiasticenthusiastic chef Kimmy Song glided by and tossed it together for us (I still get a kick remembering all the times she cheerfully reminds me "vegetarians can eat this!" as the courses came out. Between heading up Cham and being CEO of !it Jeans, I'm amazed at her bubbly attitude and endless energy.)
Some decidely less Korean, but just as delicious, courses included:
Tofu pockets, a nod to Japanese inarizushi that I always find a bit boring (just tofu skin & rice? *yawn*) Here the it's given a facelift with a variety of toppings, including blue crab and spicy tuna. Of course, I only had the Japanese seaweed & arugula-radish versions, which made for a tasty starter bite.
Watermelon salad with figs, feta cheese, arugula, mint leaves & a mint vinaigrette - I definitely love the eccentric flavor combination that's going on here, from the peppery rocket lettuce to the cooling watermelon and mint, a little sweetness from the fig and just enough salty feta to round it all out. Not only does it work, it's an interesting (hard to come by for a salad,) and I definitely look forward to recreating this salad at home (if not re-ordering it here.)
Last but not least, their drink options. Cham's still gotta represent with the Hite, but they have a pretty kickin' selection of bottled brews including Houblon Chouffe Belgian IPA, Lost Abbey's Devotion and Maredsous 8 plus an equally approachable and affordable winelist, all tasted and chosen by the Cham staff to go along with the foods served there. Imagine that, actually pairing Korean food with alcohol. Impressive!
And wrapping up the preview, a tasty Framboise float. It's not officially on the menu, but I definitely hope it'll make it (or be an off-menu item I can order) since it was a hit with everyone at the table.
I've always been one to say when done right, fusion cuisine can be a good thing - and overall, Cham fits squarely in that category, with Korean foods given a healthy, modern spin, and its influences blending seamlessly other Pan-Asian fare, plus a decent brew or glass vino to go with.
And I can attest that the morning after, instead of bloated and smelly, I woke up delighted and satisfied, plus thrilled to finally discover a place where I can enjoy delicious, meatfree Korean-inspired dishes.
More photos from my flickr set here.
What Do Others Say?
- Gastronomy thought that "Cham has managed the refine the art of tableside grilling without losing any bit of flavor"
- Eating L.A. deemed it "clean, healthy food - perfect for ushering in a vegetable-intensive 2010"
- e*star LA considered it "approachable Korean food . . . those who have been previously scared away by these flavors can appreciate the foray"
- Gourmet pigs simply declared that it's "one of the best lunch options in Pasadena"
- Mattatouille noted that Cham's "modest fusioning works better than all-out confusion . . . quite certain the bistro will have a nice following"
Cham Korean Bistro
851 Cordova Street
Pasadena, CA 91101