My politically astute friend pointed out that while relations between the countries of Japan and Korea are strained at best, relations between their cuisines are booming. It is not uncommon in the Baltimore area to find Japanese sushi and sweet Korean barbecue on the same menu, as they are at Han Sung in Ellicott City.
Owned by Choong Mo Kang, this spare, bright restaurant has the feeling of a luncheonette, with its tables topped in wood-grain Formica and cartons stacked in the hallway. There's little ornamentation outside of a few paper lanterns, sushi posters and a small sushi bar where Kang serves as chef.
Despite the toned-down atmosphere, service is gracious and efficient. Our waitress, who kept our cups filled with green tea, suggested the Japanese sunomono as an appetizer. It was a delicious cold salad of vinegar-dressed cucumber, sea vegetable, octopus, squid and, unfortunately, fake crab. The mandu gook soup, the Korean version of wonton soup, was wonderful, with delicate ginger-spiked dumplings and slivered threads of cooked egg, seaweed and cellophane noodles.
Another Korean dish, the nokdu bean pancake, was pleasantly chewy, with a golden, greasy crust. It was cut into bite-sized pieces to dunk into a soy-based sauce. Our favorite of all was the deep-fried soft-shell crab, wrapped in a whisper of a tempuralike batter and served with a zingy ginger dipping sauce.
From the sushi bar, we tried the rainbow maki, a giant roll swirled with different colors, flavors and textures. Each roll was wrapped on the outside with a piece of tuna, salmon or yellowtail, and filled inside with cucumber, roe and cooked eel. Our only problem was figuring out how to eat it without its falling apart. Fingers were the best option. A spicy yellowtail roll was just as fresh and appealing as its larger cousin.
While there are no Korean barbecue tables at Han Sung, they do prepare barbecue skillfully in the kitchen. Our sizzling platter of jae-yuk guey, thinly sliced pork, arrived with as much flourish as a smoking-hot fajita pan. The meat was tender and lean, tossed with onions and scallions in a sweet and spicy sauce.
Our waitress brought curly lettuce leaves and bean paste so we could roll up the meat "taco-style."
Another Korean dish, a whole corvina fish, was not as easy to appreciate. Our waitress compared it to rockfish, but it was so heavily salted, it tasted more like salt cod. A thick, salty dipping sauce didn't help matters, but we liked the tiny salads of kimchi, bean sprouts and other vegetables that accompanied the fish and the pork barbecue.
Desserts, as in most Asian restaurants, are limited to ice cream. Skip the green-tea flavor, and order the tempura instead. They take a scoop of vanilla, dip it in tempura batter and fry it so quickly, the ice cream doesn't melt. Like Pennsylvania funnel cakes, or New Orleans beignets, sweet fried dough has an appeal the world over.
3570 St. John's Lane, Ellicott City
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$7.95; entrees, $8.95-$19.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 6/25/98