Sunday, February 14, 2010

Extra Helpings: Tantalizing The Senses At Ha Ahn

Although it may seem like I plan them, happy accidents happen to me quite frequently. I finally decide on a restaurant to visit, plan the date and time, take the time to drive to the restaurant only to find out that the restaurant is closed. Because this situation honestly happens pretty infrequently, I never bother to premeditate a backup plan. This has led me to some surprisingly tasty discoveries as I scramble to replace the intended restaurant visit with a new one. In the case of the South Market Bistro in Wooster, Ohio, this led me to Broken Rocks Bakery and Tulipan, two excellent finds. Today's adventure was supposed to be to Superior Pho for a nice hot steaming bowl of pho with my good friend and fellow blogger, Nancy.

I arrived shortly after 1 PM on a Monday afternoon to find that there was only one day per week that Superior Pho was closed. I'm guessing that you, gentle reader, can pretty much surmise that the restaurant was closed. As luck would have it, however, just further down the hallway in the exact same building was a small Korean restaurant named Ha Ahn (or Ha An depending on who was spelling it). Neither Nancy nor myself had ever eaten here, but both of us had heard good things through word of mouth. Disappointed that neither of us were going to get our Vietnamese "fix," we decided to throw caution to the wind and turn our attention to having a nice Korean lunch instead.

Before I get too ahead of myself on the review, I think it would probably be prudent to spend a few seconds discussing how to find Ha Ahn. The address I found on the Internet was 3030 Superior Avenue, Unit 108, Cleveland, OH 44114. They can also be reached at 216-664-1152. Not surprisingly, there was no website. If you already know how to find Superior Pho, then you will have no problems finding Ha Ahn. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, here was the easiest way to find the restaurant. Find your way to the corner of Superior Avenue and East 30th. Continue on Superior Avenue east for one block. Make a right hand turn onto East 31st Street. Directly behind the building on the right will be an ample parking lot. The parking was free here. Both Superior Pho and Ha Ahn had an entrance that was only accessible from the back of the building. Don't bother looking for signage visible from Superior; trust me, you won't see any.

The signage you will see, however, was easily visible once I pulled into the parking lot and got out of my car:

Once inside the rather small restaurant, we were greeted warmly and seeing as there were no other customers besides Nancy and myself, we choose the table with the best lighting. Walking into this space, you can't help but notice the immense pictorial menu on the wall:

Just like at Wonton Gourmet, the owners of Ha Ahn knew that a picture was worth a thousand words. Each item was identified with Korean characters as well as a translation at the bottom of the photograph. In addition, each of the dishes had a tuple associated with it (i.e. B-1, C-3, etc.) which tied it to the printed menu that our server handed to us:

While Nancy and I both studied the wall and hand menus quite attentively, I don't think that either of us came to the conclusion that there was a one-to-one match between the two. That being said, quite a bit of each menu was found on the other. One other interesting note about the wall menu: Several of the photographs had a number of circular red stickers located on the same line as the translation. Based on my memory of some of these dishes I've had in the past, I surmised that the number of red stickers indicates a "spice" level. Those with no stickers were considered mild. Those with four stickers were considered quite spicy. While I didn't ask my server about my assumption, Nancy seemed to feel my conclusion was a well-reasoned one.

Shortly after dropping off our menus, our server returned with a pot of toasted barley tea:

Barley tea is quite commonly served at Korean restaurants, but Ha Ahn's version was strikingly good. As an American, this was a flavor I most commonly associated with unsweetened breakfast cereals (think Bran Flakes). It may seem to be unusual to consume this in liquid form, but once you've acquired a taste (and I have), it is quite comforting and delicious. The tea at Ha Ahn was so good, in fact, that Nancy and I proceeded to go through two pots of it.

Already present on the table when you first sit down was a small condiment caddy:

Besides a spot for the typical salt and pepper shaker, the two liquid condiments were rice wine vinegar in the clear bottle and soy sauce in the darker bottle. While neither of us had the need for the rice wine vinegar, a few drops of soy sauce here and there really amped up different parts of the meal.

Since there were only two of us at lunch today, Nancy and I decided to split an appetizer and then each order our own lunch item. As most of the items on the menu consisted of soups or noodle dishes, there were only a few items that would qualify as an "appetizer." Fortunately, steamed ground beef and tofu dumplings called ManDoo (or Mundoo) were available as a standalone item. Completely made in-house, you get eight generous dumplings for only $6.95:

Along with the dumplings came a chili-sesame seed-scallions sauce :

And here was a single dumping on my plate dressed with just a bit of the chili sauce:

Along with just a drop or two of soy sauce, this was heaven on a plate. The dumpling was tender but still had some chew to it, the beef and tofu filling was light and delicious, and the oomph that the chili sauce brought made this little morsel sing in my mouth. It should be noted that the easiest way to transfer the dumpling from the steaming basket to your plate was through the use of the long-handled spoon that every diner receives. The dumpling dough was delicate enough that trying to manhandle them with chopsticks would've easily torn them.

Having finished our appetizer, Nancy and I put in our individual lunch orders. Several minutes later, these Bento boxes appeared, one for each of us:

These were banchan (also spelled panchan) and are a combination of Korean appetizers as well as items you can use to "dress up" the impending entree. Kimche (or cabbage that has been fermented in chili paste) is a common occurrence. The fact that the banchan today came in a Bento box was a little unusual. Normally each item is plated on individual plates. Then again, our server only had to carry over two boxes instead of eight smaller plates.

Starting with the upper left of the above photo and working clockwise, you have a Korean vegetable called gobo that seemed to have been infused with a sweet / sour treatment:

Gobo is another name for the burdock root, a common vegetable in Asian cookery. While Ha Ahn's treatment of it wasn't particularly sweet or sour, it went well with some of the spicier flavorings also contained in the banchan.

Next up was the kimche:

Made with Napa cabbage, this had a nice kick to it but wasn't overly fermented. While I did sample this straight out of the Bento box, I mixed the majority of it into my lunch entree.

Next up was the strangest of the four banchan we were served today:

When the Bento boxes were first set down in front of Nancy and myself, we each immediately began taking pictures. Nancy wondered aloud what this strange looking concoction might be. Somewhat half-jokingly, I said, "It looks like chicken salad." Once the photographs were finished and we each began sampling items off the boxes, I finally got around to trying it. It ACTUALLY WAS chicken salad. Nancy was sure that we had been given this instead of something more traditional because of our lack of Korean appearance, but upon questioning our server she insisted that the chicken salad was what everyone received. The chicken salad itself was dressed in mayonnaise and as far as a chicken salad goes, it was actually pretty decent. How this was supposed to integrate into my lunch entree, however, intrigued me throughout my lunch. In the end, ironically, this was the one item I didn't finish.

The final item in the Bento box was something I have seen at other Korean restaurants, a cold potato salad:

Dressed in a mildly spicy dressing tossed with a copious amount of sesame seeds, these were a tasty treat that I enjoyed not so much mixed into my entree, but as an occasional diversion in between bites of my entree.

Speaking of which, while many of the items on the menu were speaking to me, none were as loud as the Bibimbap Dolsot:

Bibimbap literally means "stirred rice." Essentially, you start with a layer of cooked rice in the bottom of your bowl and add many delicious items on top of it such as shredded carrots, bean sprouts, marinated and cooked beef (also known as bulgogi), nori strips, and a fried egg. The "dolsot" indicates that all of the above will actually be served in a heated stoneware bowl. The heated bowl along with a layer of oil underneath the rice actually continues to cook the rice and give it a wonderful crispy texture, not unlike the socarrat in a traditional Spanish paella.

In an amazing play to many of my senses, I could both hear and smell the sizzling of the rice as soon as our server emerged from the kitchen, well before I could see her. Along with my lunch came a bottle of Korean hot sauce:

Comprised of hot chili paste that had been diluted with both rice wine vinegar and a little bit of sweetener, this reminded me of a spicier Thai sweet chili sauce. I applied a very liberal amount to the top of my bowl:

And stirred to break up the perfectly cooked egg and distribute all of the ingredients in the bowl:

I was extremely happy today with how my egg was cooked. Normally when an American orders this dish, the egg is cooked completely through. While I don't know that Koreans have a word for "sunnyside up eggs," when I used the words "runny" and "soft," my server seemed to understand what I wanted. One of the first items that struck me was how little beef was in the bowl. As you can see from the pictures above, the bowl was definitely not lacking for food. I have a feeling that this bowl of bibimbap was probably a tad more authentic than versions I've had elsewhere. In many Asian cultures, because of the relative high cost and scarcity of meat, most of the meal is split between rice and vegetables. This was definitely the case today. Although to be fair, I didn't miss the excess of meat.

All of the flavors played so well together and the squirt or two of Korean hot sauce added just the right amount of heat to the party. The textural element that the sauteed rice added was also a nice addition. I will warn you, gentle reader, the rice from the bottle of the bowl will stay rocket hot for the entire duration of the meal, so be careful when consuming it. The mushrooms added a wonderful earthiness to the flavor as well as a nice chewy texture and the nori strips that decorated the top of the bowl added a bit of a savory element that one associates with the ocean. Hands down, this was the best bibimbap I think I have ever had. Anywhere.

While I did have a bite of Nancy dish,

I'm going to let her describe the dish to you on her blog. Suffice it to say that our server tried to talk Nancy out of her choice, probably because she thought it wouldn't appeal to an American palate. Little did she know the palates she had sitting at her table today were those of a very seasoned and well-traveled (in Nancy's case, literally) pair.

Even though both of us left Ha Ahn completely full and with leftover boxes in tow, I know that we would have loved to try even more flavors today had we been given the chance. I suppose it is just another reason to grab five or six of your closest friends and head out to this remarkable little gem of a restaurant. If you want to satisfy a Korean craving or just want to learn more about the flavors from this part of the world, Ha Ahn is highly recommended. Just remember not to go on Sunday: the restaurant is open every day of the week except Sunday.


Anonymous said...

Would love to hear about Nancy's experience! Did I miss a link to her blog?

Keep up the great work! I really enjoy reading about the hidden gems around here.

-joe in Hudson

Tino said...

@Joe in Hudson: Nope, you didn't miss a link. Nancy hasn't posted a blog entry yet about her experience. As soon as she does, I'll link to it.

Thanks for reading!

playswithfood said...

blog post comingsoon! playswithfood.

Tino said...

@playswithfood: Bring it on! :) I'm looking forward to reading your take on our meal, especially your thoughts on your dish!!

Nancy Heller said...

Sorry this took so long - I got sick right after returning from Florida. But I am back in the blogging saddle again! Here is the link to my report on Ha Ahn:

Thank you all for your patience!

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