Let Kansas City have its fried chicken, San Francisco its cioppino. Los Angeles is a world center of kimchi, the odiferous fermented vegetables that make up so much of the Korean table: briny bits of turnip, chile-sluiced cabbages, bittersweet daikon, stringy masses of seaweed and water spinach, and shoots of God-knows-what mountain vegetables, all cured in crocks, sold in bulk, neatly presented in little bowls. There is nothing like a good dish of cabbage kimchi, so garlicky that even silk flowers are tempted to wilt from the smell: chile-red, well-salted, limp and yet resilient, as if each leaf had been individually wrung out by a special machine.
Korean restaurants live and die by their kimchi. A place can have crisp bulgogi, fragrant crab soup, springy buckwheat noodles, and still customers will avoid it if the kimchi is subpar. Kimchi counters take up vast acreage in Korean supermarkets; shops devoted solely to kimchi thrive; homemade kimchi ferments in the cellars of half the houses in Koreatown, hundreds and hundreds of different kinds in all. I have tasted as much of it as I could.
And yet, I have never tasted anything like the bosam-kimchi at the North Korean--style Yongsusan in Koreatown -- a green, round cabbage that has been hollowed out and stuffed, then wrapped up again and left to ferment whole; a kimchi as serious yet unpredictable as Kim Il Sung’s foreign policy. The odor of this kimchi, a specialty of the North Korean region Kaesong, is off-putting at first, not strong, but overlaid with the kind of ripeness one might not ordinarily want to be reminded of at table -- but it quickly resolves itself into a pleasing stink reminiscent of bubbling yeasts and runny French cheeses, and by the time you dig into the pale center of the cabbage and unearth vegetables, sweet nutmeats, pungent bits of shrimp, the perfume has somehow been transmuted into something as vibrant and heady as something bottled by Guerlain.
Bosam-kimchi, at least at Yongsusan, is only lightly fermented (like a new pickle), and its sourness comes across as a mild thing, almost spritzy (like May wine), deepening to a rounder, meatlike tang at the core. Sometimes it seems as if every flavor on Earth is contained somewhere in the soft, green orb.
Yongsusan is the Los Angeles branch of a small Seoul chain of Kaesong-style restaurants, an elegant, hushed place with plush banquettes and silk-covered walls, a warren of discreet private dining rooms, a tinkle of Korean classical music. If you are used to the smoky good cheer of the neighborhood‘s innumerable soontofu dives and kalbi parlors, the restaurant’s formality may be a little surprising -- as is its expense.
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It may be technically possible to order a meal at Yongsusan dish by dish, but multicourse set dinners make up most of the menu at the restaurant, and the bosam-kimchi appears as the centerpiece of each. First comes a sweet squash porridge the approximate texture of library paste, then a sort of seafood salad not unlike Japanese sunomono, and a bowl of soft, almost transparent mung-bean noodles, chung po mook, flavored with beef and toasty little bits of seaweed that dissolve in your mouth with a final blast of brininess: very fine. Ku jul pan is the standard Korean fancy-dinner appetizer, thin crepes meant to be rolled around ribbons of egg, mushrooms, vegetables and meat.
Roast pork, almost Italian in its voluptuousness, is served with a leaf or two of chile‘d kimchi; a few slices of blood sausage veer very close to Colombian-style morcilla; oyster pancake with vegetables seems custom-designed to help down a bottle of Hite beer. Korean barbecued short ribs are an inevitable part of the meal. There is a sort of shrimp porridge spiked with vegetables and topped with a runny poached egg, and a bowl of soup with a dumpling or two, and delicious, stretchy buckwheat noodles -- North Korea may be the world center of buckwheat noodles -- in a cold beef broth. And a weirdly sweet persimmon punch.
But mostly there is that Kaesong-style kimchi, the Chateau Lafitte of the kimchi world, and worth a visit on its own.
950 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 388-3042. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Valet parking behind restaurant. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: chung po mook; bosam-kimchi; ku jul pan.