Clad in woods, decorated with bark, crisscrossed with dangling vines, Sol Bawoo is a profoundly good Korean restaurant concealed in the obscure and dinky Murray Hill district of Flushing. The interior resembles a rustic mountain retreat, and rows of metal hoods quicken the pulse with the promise of barbecue. Disappointingly, the fixture we spy in the middle of the table is natural gas, but when the waitress arrives bearing our first selectionthe inevitable well-marbled prime rib cut in ribbons, with the denuded bones displayed alongsideshe also balances a brazier heaped with irregular chunks of charcoal shooting sparks.
Though pricey ($16.95), the rib is greatsmoky and faintly tasting of its sugar-and-soy marinade. As a follow-up, instead of the usual beef and pork cuts and short seafood catalog, we're faced with some unusual choices. Perhaps in pursuit of its rustic theme, Sol Bawoo has rewritten the Korean barbecue book. Quail ($15.95) sounds particularly intriguing, and there are gasps around the table when the waitress appears with four handsome birds. Splaying them on the grill, she tosses a little rock salt with the self-assurance of a cooking-school grad. She doesn't give a fig that a Manhattan chef would barely sear the birds and serve the meat rare. Humming under her breath, she cooks the birds through. Since the squabs are as lean as marathon runners, they end up a little on the dry side.
As we're gnawing the bones, we can't help but notice that our next course has materialized on an adjacent table: a pair of freshwater eels ($19.95), skins glistening. But a second glance induces a double take: at first the edges seem to be rippling in an unfelt breeze, then suddenly an eel leaps into the air like a circus acrobat. Electrochemically, the specimens are still alive. Once over charcoal, the filets sizzle, the fat renders into the leaping flames, and the skin curls and browns. At this point the waitress begins brushing on the barbecue sauce. Eventually she cuts the eel into bite-size pieces, and gives them one final grilling. They were so good, I couldn't help ordering them on every subsequent visit.
Several meats in the barbecue section aren't really barbecued. The duck, for example, arrives cut into still-frozen breast medallions, each rimmed with a half inch of yellowish fat. The waitress yanks out a griddle like a Roman amphitheater, with a drain in the middle. Positioning it over a gas flame, she sets the coins asizzle, and a lake of fat begins to form. We didn't have much hope for the ingredients or the method, but by the time the pieces were on our plate, and we'd been taught to swish them in the sesame oil, salt, and pepper condiment, we were raving.
Sol Bawoo offers several other specialties, including fiery soups, noodles, and country-style stews featuring exotica like Korean golden pheasant, priced around $39.95. Unfortunately, the latter was unavailable every time we asked for it. Another highlight is several goat selections. I'd never seen goat on a Korean menu before, but a friend who's been to Korea tells me it's sold rurally out of roadside stew pots. We were naturally curious about "steamed special part of goat meat" ($25 per pound). When we asked the waitress, she giggled and wouldn't explain. She soon presented us with a wok cradling mounds heaps of grayish meat heaped over lightly steamed garlic chives. The flesh was odd, very muscular and fatty at the same time. It wasn't wonderful, but we savored it for its unusual texture. Eventually a jovial drunk from across the room reeled over, smirkingly pointed at the meat, then beat his chest like Tarzan. He made us wonder: had we just eaten goat penis?
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