Another suburban Korean restaurant? When you put it that way, I guess we are a little obsessed with the idea of gentrified Korean food. Everybody knows the cuisine is going to hit the mainstream at some point, but nobody has quite figured out what it is going to look like in its pure, P.F. Changian mode, as diligently as multinational restaurant developers have been placing their bets on bibimbap, on yogurt and on a kind of Malaysian morning bun popular in Seoul. If a Korean Public Enemy were to record an album on the subject, they'd call it Fear of a Kimchi Planet.
But if suburban Korean cooking ever did settle into a reproducible model, it might end up looking a lot like Gaon, a new Korean restaurant in the red-state precincts of Pasadena, a pleasant place that looks as if it was furnished from a West Elm catalog, blasts mellow jazz and has not a tabletop grill in sight.
Gaon is apparently unrelated to the Seoul restaurant of the same name, which was known for its modernized, chefly and extremely expensive take on traditional cuisine. (It's a little like calling a new Spanish restaurant here El Bulli.) But the chef, Simon King, comes from the Woo Lae Oak empire, whose brand of upscale Korean cooking dots better neighborhoods around the world. While the banchan — pickled small first courses — are a little wan, as if the establishment doesn't quite trust that its customers will understand kimchi, King's cooking is actually spry, subtle and fairly traditional. Yuk hwe, a salad of raw beef, sesame oil and slivered Asian pear, may look like Italian-restaurant carpaccio but tastes of nothing but Korea; and the menu is dominated by things like monkfish soup, stuffed squid and cod stew instead of the usual barbecue. The stew — jjigae — of kimchi and pork is deeply flavored; and the dolsot bibimbap, rice with vegetables or meat tossed in a searingly hot stone bowl, develops the requisite crunchy crust.
Is Gaon going to replace Koreatown? Of course not. But on a dull Sunday night, when nobody wants to set foot in the kitchen, I suspect a lot of Koreans are going to be stepping out for dak galbi instead of kung pao pork.