The word “maru” has distinct but overlapping meanings in Korean and Japanese.
In traditional Korean homes, maru is the wooden table at the center of the dining room, the playroom and the living room where friends and family gather. In Japanese, it means “circle.” And I'm told that when they're talking about a nice person, Koreans say that “her personality is a circle.”
Those meanings mingle, along with food from both cultures, at the new Maru Sushi Korean Grill — the expanded, renewed and rechristened version of Han Kuk Kwan Korean restaurant.
What had for a decade been a tiny hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall near 108th and Q Streets now is a large, pretty, high-ceilinged space with modern furnishings, stylish plates, a sushi counter and a sake-and-soju-stocked bar. Fresh flowers, a giant mirror and a striking wall-sized image of cherry blossoms lend a sense of calm.
Much of the new menu is given over to Japanese sushi — the unadorned raw fish slices known as sashimi, the fish-on-rice-pillows known as nigiri and the nori-wrapped rice rolls known as maki, including drizzled and sizzled versions laced with cooked or smoked seafood, cream cheese, fried flourishes and unusual sauces.
There are lots of exotic proteins for the adventurous: marinated baby squid and baby octopus, salmon skin salad, a cold noodle dish with sliced stingray.
But recent visits found the most soulful dishes on the lone page still reserved for Korean fare: the sizzling rice bowls called bibimbap, the marinated barbecued meats called bulgogi, the hearty soups and the glistening noodle and stir-fry dishes made by Boksoon Tamayo, the South Korean native who owns the new restaurant and founded its predecessor in 1999.
Start with bibimbap or (bibimbab as it's spelled at Maru), a mound of short-grain Korean rice topped with prettily sliced zucchini, carrot, scallion, bean sprouts and the protein of your choice, and just see if you don't fall in love. Order the dinner version, which comes in a hot stone bowl that sizzles as you eat. It keeps everything hot, makes a terrific sauce of the individual components (sesame oil, garlic, a fermented bean paste called dwenjang, a sweet-and-spicy red pepper paste called gochujang, and, in some versions, the yolk of a sunny-side-up egg) and crisps the rice at the bottom in a marvelous way. You stir it all up, add more gochujang if you like and dig in. Be sure to clean the bowl: the toasted rice rafts that form at the bottom are a delicacy not to be missed.
Even if you cringe at pickled or peppered things, don't fear the banchan — cold side dishes of pickled or seasoned vegetables served as a trio with most of the Korean entrees.
On my visits, these included cucumber-seaweed, Napa cabbage and daikon radish versions of kimchi. Though all were speckled with red pepper paste and seeds, they packed a range of heat, from the mild pickly cucumber-seaweed to spicier cabbage and radish. There was a sweet edge and a gentle insistence to the heat. And, rather than numbing my taste buds, even the spiciest seemed to clear the nose and cleanse the tongue and make everything else all the more enjoyable.
For the truly pepper-phobic, there also were deliciously mild Korean-spiced broccoli — itty-bitty florets tossed with sesame oil and seeds and something a little sweet and salty — and tasty, if not exactly traditional, cubes of fried potato in teriyaki sauce.
General manager Joy Wang said her mother, Tamayo, makes all the cold side dishes and sauces from scratch each morning, even the bean paste in the bibimbap. Her diligence showed.
Korean barbecue dishes such as bulgogi were terrific. The pork bulgogi involved flags of meat marinated for two days in soy sauce, sesame oil and kiwi and pineapple juices, and seasoned with lemon grass, ginger, scallion and peppers. It was doused with ground red pepper, then grilled and served on a sizzling platter with a bowl of steamed rice. The result was tender, juicy, nutty, middling-spicy and uniquely flavorful.
Maru serves steak, chicken, beef short rib and pork belly versions of its barbecue as well. The “special” variety, which costs more and serves two, comes with assorted garnishes and a grill so you can cook it yourself and roll it into little lettuce wraps.
I also enjoyed the japchae, or chabchae as it is spelled here: otherworldly noodles stir-fried with soy sauce, sesame oil, meats and vegetables and served with rice. The chewy potato-starch noodles are the star — translucent, glistening amber curls that absorb and echo the flavor of the stir-fry.
Sushi is a new and growing endeavor at Maru. Wang said the eatery doesn't yet do a high volume and is only getting fresh seafood twice a week. In my admittedly limited sampling, that meant the seafood wasn't always pristine enough for raw sashimi and nigiri preparations.
Sushi rice — though fat, sticky and properly cooked — lacked the sweet-sour balance I like. And in a small, simply plated sashimi combo, the rounded slices of tuna were bland, the arched slices of yellow tail were mushy and the silver-skinned saba (an oily mackerel typically treated with salt or a vinegar rinse in sushi preparations) had an overaggressive cure and a chewy texture that reminded me of pickled herring.
Rolls involving dressed-up fish were far more successful. I particularly enjoyed the Mango Roll: filled with spicy minced crab and tempura fried shrimp; topped with thin, alternating slices of mango and salmon; and drizzled with a sunny “fusion” sauce that smacked of honey-mustard and tropical fruit.
Though one server seemed uninformed about sushi, the entire staff was welcoming, friendly, professional and generally well-versed in Korean offerings. The ambience was comfortable, clean and as cool as a shaded Japanese pond. Prices felt right for the vibrant Korean flavor and modern setting, but a little high for some of the disappointing sushi.
Quibbles were few: Music that distracted from the Zen feel (swingy Frank Sinatra and “Lullaby of Broadway” at lunch, clubby Seal and pop songs at dinner). Slippery round stainless steel chopsticks that always threatened to roll away. A few missing explainers on the menu (that the quick lunch version of bibimbap comes in a cold bowl, for instance). And some difficulty getting orders from the cold sushi bar and the hot kitchen when diners want them, whether that's in distinct courses or all at once.
The folks at Maru didn't need to add sushi to hook me. But I'm glad they did.
They've kept true to their Korean roots. They've tried something new.
And, in so many ways, they've widened the circle.
Contact the writer: