Owner and chef Soo Kim has created a unique little eatery in the heart of Baltimore's arts district. Kimchee House is colorful and casual, and it offers Korean food that is light and fresh, though perhaps not quite as flavorful as it could be.
When Kimchee House opened on West Preston Street in October, the menu was mostly vegetarian items and a few seafood dishes. It was also open only for lunch.
Within a few months, Kim said, she responded to demand and added some meat dishes to the menu. Recently, she expanded the hours to include Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. Even with the changes, the restaurant maintains a low-key feel.
Patrons must walk up a flight of stairs to reach the restaurant, a cozy, wood-floored jumble of spaces. The main dining area is painted sunshine yellow with sky blue trim. The tabletops are adorned with photographs wedged haphazardly under the glass.
The restaurant has no liquor license, but if you bring your own beer or wine, your server will happily supply an ice bucket and a set of mismatched glasses. Sometimes deliberately mismatched tableware can be charming, but it's not as cute when the glasses sport the names of liquor companies.
Kimchee, of course, is one of the main attractions, and Kim makes it herself. The tart fermented vegetable dish is to Korea what crab cakes are to Baltimore - part comfort food and part culinary source of pride. On a recent visit, it was made both with and without cayenne. Both were crunchy and mild, but the cayenne version had a little more zing. A radish salad, while not strictly kimchee, had a similar cool crunch and vinegary flavor.
In general, appetizers at Kimchee House are more interesting than the main courses. The house special offers a nice assortment of tidbits and nibbles, including a couple of kimchees, fried savory mung bean pancakes, firm rectangles of tofu brushed with a nutty marinade, and crunchy slices of lotus root, which tastes a little like turnip.
Other appetizers are mostly in the form of dumplings, called mandoo, which arrive in pretty little bamboo steamers along with small bowls of soy sauce. The mandoo were delicate in both form and flavor. The bright green wrapper of the shrimp mandoo housed a gently flavored mix of shrimp bits, tofu and vegetables. The chicken mandoo was pleasantly gingery, but the wrapper was so soft that the dumpling fell apart when picked up with chopsticks. (Forks are available for the chopstick-challenged.)
Ginger is a dominant flavor here, but the ginger shrimp, while firm and fresh, had almost no ginger flavor. The simply prepared shrimp were served on an equally simple mound of chewy brown rice. It was almost too health-foody.
Even the bulgogi, a traditional Korean beef dish that should deliver satisfying blasts of ginger, garlic and scallions, was restrained, though the slices of fried meat were tender enough to cut with a fork.
Coconut curry soup was thick, creamy and loaded with chunks of rockfish, salmon and shrimp. But I tossed in a shot of soy sauce to balance the sweetness of the broth. Even a dish called spicy chicken with black bean sauce, made with chicken and tofu, was blander than most Chinese takeout versions.
Desserts, which vary nightly, included a simple fruit plate with slices of apple and Asian pear, as well as a rich ginger ice cream, served attractively in little scoops on a plate, interspersed with crunchy rolled wafer cookies.
Service at Kimchee House wavered between charming and careless. Our server was generally prompt and was happy to recommend dishes, but the timing of our food was off. Appetizers arrived whenever they were ready, including one that arrived after the entrees had been served. And one main dish came 10 minutes after the others had been served.
Kimchee House is a welcome addition to the Baltimore dining scene, but it could be even better with more attention to detail and a bolder hand with the seasonings.
Soo's Kimchee House
Where: 11 W. Preston St., Baltimore
Open: Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. (Wednesday is sushi night)
Prices: Appetizers $3.95-$6.95, entrees $9.95-$15.95
Credit cards: All major
Service: ** 1/2