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Opinion

New Korea Garden in Westmont offers post-holiday warm-up

WESTMONT – Oh, the weather outside is frightful, and just because the holidays are nearly over, it doesn’t mean it gets any better. But if you’re looking to warm up over dinner or enjoy a nice leisurely conversation, I’ve got just the place.

New Korea Garden in downtown Westmont is the perfect destination for cold winter days and nights. From the outside, New Korea Garden provides a dark, shadowy illusion. Upon entering through the double set of fortress-like doors, the interior space is just the opposite.

The interior is brightly lit and welcoming. Tables are spaced a comfortable distance apart, and booths are movable, allowing for easy navigation, access and tableside conversations.

New Korea Garden is truly a mom-and-pop destination, and upon entering, we were warmly greeted by the mom side of the duo. Mom handles the front room solo, and Pop has the backroom. Cold water and hot tea were on our table within seconds.

The tables are unique at this Korean barbecue, as perimeter tables have a covered receptacle that will house a portable grill filled with red-hot coals should you choose the barbecue or casserole entrees.

Several appetizers are available to begin your meal. Pan-fried dumplings were standard issue and accompanied by a soy, sesame seed, gochujang (red chili paste) and scallion dipping sauce. Served with a crispy brown exterior, the smooth interior blended pork and vegetables and worked well with the dipping sauce.

Much better is the seafood pancake, which combines seafood (shrimp, calamari and char) with vegetables (red and green peppers, onion, mushroom and green onion) in a light flour pancake. All of our dishes were served steaming hot, and this was no exception. Light, crispy, flavorful – it was a table highlight.

There are several additional appetizers ranging from traditional spicy rice cakes to spicy calamari to spicy freshwater snails. As with all dishes, each can be prepared to your desired heat range – mild, medium, spicy!

There are 10 soup dishes on the menu, and they are entrée-sized portions. Want to warm up a bit? Any of these will do! We found the kimchi soup to be phenomenal! The broth was infused with cabbage kimchi and more gochujang paste. It was served bubbling hot in a metal cauldron and had a rich, spicy flavor. Beneath the kimchi mantle were layers of pork belly slices and tofu, which picked up some of the kimchi flavor, adding another dimension. My 2017 bucket list will be to try all 10.

Rice dishes are complete one-dish meals. Rice, vegetables, lettuce and your choice of meat are layered in an industrial stone bowl. Dol sot bop combines bulgogi, which is sweet, marinated beef slices, with the previously mentioned ingredients. The result is a lighter dish, with each forkful having a different taste range.

In addition to soup and rice dishes, several cold and hot noodle dishes are available. While the menu looks intimidating, many ingredients repeat in soups, noodle or rice dishes, and throughout the many combinations. If you’re visiting for the first time, I recommend a hearty soup to be shared and barbecue for two. You will be exposed to many of the wonderful flavors and combinations I have described above.

In preparation for our barbecue, the pop side of the duo appeared wearing elbow-high, heavy-duty gloves. He needed them as the receptacle cover was removed, and a grill with red-hot coals was placed in the center of our table. It doesn’t get any warmer than that.

We chose the two-person combination platter of chicken, pork and beef. Two separate grates are provided, and we were instructed to cook the chicken first. We cooked half the chicken and then began experimenting. With three meats, eight toppings, three sauces, lettuce and rice, there are thousands of combinations possible. Lettuce leaves are provided to create custom wraps.

Beef and pork were next, with a new grate and tongs being an easy and quick switch-out. All three of the meats were marinated prior to being served, adding to the flavor profile. It’s fun to cook a few pieces at a time, mix and match the various ingredients and enjoy the company of others at the table. You control the pace and relaxation level.

Three sauces, eight sides, rice, lettuce and warming soybean paste soup accompany your meat selections. The side dishes covered the range of Korean flavors and included radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, fish cake (voted most delicious), kale cabbage, sweet potato with bits of carrot, seaweed, pickled bean sprout with carrot and a julienne daikon radish. With literally thousands of combinations to be tried, each bite becomes an experiment in fun.

Another option, casserole dishes are served for two and utilize many of the same ingredients and options from the barbecue menu. The difference, casserole dishes are already combined and take the work out of cooking your meal. They are served in one dish, center table on the hot grill. The standard sides and rice accompany the casserole dishes as well.

If you like supporting mom-and-pop businesses, here’s your chance. Open every day except Tuesday, there is a full page of lunch specials complimenting the three-page dinner menu. Reservations are suggested for primetime weekend dining.

While all dishes can be shared, the barbecue and casseroles are particularly fun to order and lend themselves to a leisurely meal with lots of conversation…and some new flavors and tastes. Warm your new year up right with a visit to New Korea Garden.

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About New Korea Garden

WHERE: 204 N. Cass Ave., Westmont
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesday
DRESS CODE: Casual
INFO: 630-852-1900
RESERVATIONS: Accepted
PARKING: Easy
WIFI: N/A
NOISE FACTOR: Relaxing
PRICING: $$

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