Diners at the Picnic Garden buffet select meats to grill at their table, plus sides.
Diners at the Picnic Garden buffet select meats to grill at their table, plus sides.
Posted: Tuesday February 28, 2012, 11:25 AM
Unique Eats: New ways to explore Korean cuisine
By Elisa Ung

Yes, you've probably been to a buffet. But have you been to one where the main feature was raw meat?

The thought initially turned me off, but that was before a meal at the new all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue spot in Englewood Cliffs.

It's called Picnic Garden, and it's not for everyone, but it does give our area a new way to approach a cuisine rich with possibilities.

And it's one of a handful of dining options that have made it easier than ever to explore Korean food, even if you live outside of the major Korean restaurant neighborhoods of Palisades Park, Fort Lee and Closter.

Korean bakeries such as Paris Baguette and Gateaux have been common in those communities for some time, but now you can grab a red bean pastry or some cinnamon manju off Route 17 in Paramus at the similar Kook Hwa bakery and café.

In Ridgewood, pastry chef Keum Sook Park has been serving French-style crepes, pastries, coffee and soups for nearly a year now out of her Sook Pastry Shop, but the native of South Korea recently added a lunch special of the bulgogi (marinated ribeye) that she makes for herself at home ($11 with rice and an egg).

And in River Vale, another South Korean-born chef, Marianne Lee, opened a 10-seat café last year called Doma Doma, with Korean dishes designed to introduce her native cuisine to the curious. She also offers sushi and Japanese food.

When I stopped into Doma Doma for lunch recently, the waiter hesitantly asked me whether I liked spicy food before bringing out little bowls of excellent kimchee and pickled vegetables.

Lee says she tames down her use of garlic and red pepper to cater more toward American tastes, and this was evident in her renditions of bibimbap (a rice dish) and bulgogi (try them together, $10.50 at lunch or $12.50 otherwise). But the dishes were still hearty and delicious in their own right, particularly for anyone unfamiliar with the cuisine.

In Englewood Cliffs, Picnic Garden is a much different experience than Doma Doma. This is the third Picnic Garden location – there is a well-known sister restaurant in Flushing and another in Edison. Manager Arty Lee said the owners purposely avoided opening in Bergen's more heavily Korean neighborhoods, which would have meant more competition

The spicing and quality of most of its meats were easily in line with many of Bergen's other Korean barbecue restaurants. When a Korean friend and I visited recently, we heard Korean being spoken throughout the big dining area.

The two-month-old restaurant offers about a dozen varieties of raw, marinated meats (including beef, chicken, lamb and pork) and seafood that you select from a buffet and grill at your table.

Our dinner was worth it the minute we tried the sweet LA kalbi (marinated short ribs, thinly cut across the bones) and the spicy, tender pork ribs. In fact, the only real disappointments from the meat selection were the more thickly cut kalbi and the bulgogi, both of which were on the tough side.

The price of admission is $26.95 for dinner Monday through Thursday and $29.95 Friday, Saturday and Sunday, when manager Lee says there are more non-barbecue offerings. When we came in on a Thursday, we found three soups but mostly unimpressive side-dish options such as lukewarm chicken wings and chewy seafood pancakes.

So who should go here, and when? I'd recommend skipping the cheaper lunch option, which Lee says does not include the standout kalbi.

Orders of barbecue from Korean menus elsewhere generally cost $20 or more, so Picnic Garden will be a good value for people who find they can eat more than one order by themselves. Those who prefer to eat meat sparingly shouldn't bother coming — you'll find better made-to-order non-meat dishes elsewhere.

As for the process? When we visited, the staff helped us cut and grill the meat; we just had to make sure that we took it off the gas grill and that we avoided mixing raw and cooked meats. Picnic Garden does offer a good chance to sample all of the traditional barbecue items you've always seen on Korean menus – pork belly, spicy chicken, sausage, even items such as intestines, heart and gizzards – thus offering something for first-timers and those familiar with the food, too.

Email feedback to me at ung@northjersey.com. If you include your name, town and phone number, your thoughts may be included in future columns. Twitter: elisaung Blog: northjersey.com/foodblog

* Picnic Garden: all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet; 150 Sylvan Ave., Englewood Cliffs; 201-816-9300

* Café Doma Doma: café also serving sushi and Japanese food; 215 D Rivervale Road, River Vale, 201-497-8191; cafedomadoma.com

* Kook Hwa: bakery and café; 365 Route 17 south, Paramus; 201-265-8484

* Sook Pastry Shop: French bakery and café with Korean lunch specials; 24 S. Broad St., Ridgewood, 201-493-2500; sookpastry.com