Korean cuisine is bold, an often aggressive blend of heat and sour flavors that spring from fermentation. It is traditionally a rustic and pungent cuisine, and one that deserves more attention and exploration in Austin.
So I’m happy that Oseyo opened this spring. Located in an increasingly hip part of East Austin approximately five miles from any other Korean restaurant, most of which are located in North Austin, Oseyo has the hallmarks of cool, modern Austin restaurants of all stripes: sleek architecture with clean lines, a neutral color palette, tasteful and subtle design elements (here Korean fabric art and a centerpiece made of woven baskets) and cocktails. It doesn’t look like most Korean restaurants you’ll find in Austin, often mom-and-pop places with little design budget and more affordable rents.
The style and location (along with some of the prices), which position the restaurant to attract Austin denizens lured by trendy and aesthetically pleasing dining destinations, take a few pages from the playbooks of Sway and Elizabeth Street Cafe, the stylized Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in South Austin. But unlike those two restaurants, Oseyo, which translates to "welcome" in Korean, was started by someone with roots in the culture and cuisine celebrated by the restaurant. Korean-American Lynn Miller grew up in Dallas with one foot in Korean culture and the other firmly in the States, and since her teen years, the graduate of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University has envisioned opening a restaurant based on the food she grew up with in her home.
Miller, who established herself in the Austin real estate game after working in the front of house at celebrated New York City restaurants, said around the May opening that she wanted to share with diners the dishes her mother cooked. Oseyo was not intended to be a chef-driven restaurant with unique creations like Parachute in Chicago, or Atomix and Kawi in New York City. The menu is straight forward, created based on the recipes of Miller’s mother. They are the kind of staple dishes you’ll find at many of the Korean restaurants in North Austin — stews, dumplings, noodles and Korean barbecue. But most of the dishes at Oseyo lack the verve, depth and deeply memorized execution you’ll find in those spaces.
Eggy pancakes called pajeon are usually a pan-fried blend of a crispy, toasty outside with a soft center brightened by scallions, but here the shrimp and scallion stuffed rounds were blackened and flaky, the acrid taste overwhelming everything ($9). The oblong pan-fried gun mandu (dumplings) had a nice sear, but the mushrooms and veggies were trapped inside a gummy shell ($8). More successful were the delicate steamed versions (jin mandu), though an oily slick coated the pop of kimchi mixed with the pork and beef ($9).
Korean street food goes great with drinking. I was a bit surprised at the almost complete lack of bracing distilled Korean spirit soju on the menu (one cocktail features it) and turned to the sweet-and-savory mezcal-based Seoul of Oaxaca ($12) with its blend of pear, artichoke and peppercorn. That spice should have gone nicely with Korean fried chicken, but the sauce, all sweet and no heat, faded in comparison to the complex drink, and the knobby chicken was more craggy coating than thin-skin crackling ($9). The sweet fermented flavors worked better as a sauce on the firm cylindrical orbs of rice cakes (ddukbokki) dotted with black sesame ($8).
If you have even a cursory knowledge of Korean cuisine, you’ve certainly encountered the cuisine's primary staples — stew, barbecue and bibimbap. Kimchi jjigae is an expressive and aggressive curative. Usually. Oseyo’s version was my most disappointing note of two dinners. It tasted like watered down Campbell’s tomato soup ($13). There was none of the dish’s trademark heat from chili flakes; the kimchi (fermented cabbage) was muted; the pork belly insinuated none of its fat into the broth; and there wasn’t the layer of flavor from perilla leaves that you sometimes find in the stew. While that dish suffered from an imbalance of flavors, the japchae was a failure in execution, the clear sweet potato noodles cooked down to a mush ($13), and the jajangmyeon didn’t fare much better, the udon noodles lacking any spring beneath its pile of bland black bean sauce ($13). I'm not sure if the kitchen has attempted to Americanize these dishes in hopes of appealing to diners who don't regularly eat Korean food, but if that is the calculus, I think the net result is that it saps much of the food's powerful punch.
While the fermented flavors of the ubiquitous kimchi and gochujang (fermented chili paste) can intimidate some diners, Korean barbecue usually brings a blanket of sweet umami that can warm anyone. Beef bulgogi is typically marinated in an alluring elixir of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and black pepper. But at Oseyo, the kitchen gets heavy handed with the sweetness, leaving the tender strips of ribeye ($21) tasting like a meaty version of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Fortunately the salted sesame oil used to lacquer the beef in a self-made lettuce bites went a long way in righting any wrongs.
The chicken thighs were more worrisome. The dark meat was allegedly marinated in sesame oil blend, but the dry meat tasted like chicken pulled from Buffalo wings and left to rest under a warming lamp ($18). Even the banchan (an assortment of side dishes that come with Korean barbecue) needed tweaking, with the bean sprouts lacking crunch and adequate sesame oil and the spinach drowning in water. And if you’re expecting much in the way of explanation via your harried server dealing with a sometimes chaotic dining room, you may be disappointed.
The best successes from the grill were the smoky and meaty mushrooms ($18) and the whole mackerel ($28) tingled with lemon and ginger, though something tells me the average diner is less inclined to opt for the oily and pungent fish that I love. If you want to take the safest route to comfort and flavor, opt for the dolsot bibimbap ($15). The rice, fanned with julienned vegetables and layered with bulgogi beef and fried egg, gets heated to a crispy finish by the hot stone bowl in which its served. Squirt the dish with gochujang and then mix all of the ingredients together. It’s a solid introduction to Korean food, and unlike the restaurant as a whole, it tastes better than it looks.
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