Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lighthouse Tofu (Vit Goel) - Rockville 1/29/2011

Lighthouse Tofu
12710 Twinbrook Pkwy

Rockville, MD 20847

Lighthouse Tofu (also known as Vit Goel) is a Korean "tofu" restaurant located a short distance from the Twinbrook Metro Station and also has another branch in Annandale, VA. This place specializes in dishes called soondubu, which is a stew of soft, custardy tofu in an extremely spicy soup. Although this restaurant specializes in "tofu" dishes, this is no safe-haven for vegetarians. The vast majority of the entrees have seafood or meat in them, and even some of the dishes that may appear to be fauna-free (specifically the complimentary panchan dishes) often are seasoned with seafood based condiments known as jeotgal. Of course, I am about as sympathetic to those vegetarians who complain about being "duped" into eating "animal-tainted" food in Korean restaurants as those who go to a McDonald's and who are shocked, absolutely shocked, to discover those luscious fries they were eating were dipped in beef tallow (there is a reason Korean cuisine is known for their beef BBQ rather than the gruel served in mountain monasteries to Buddhist monks). However, I thought some fair warning to the fastidiously flora-inclined was necessary.

Housed in a free-standing building, slightly reminiscent of the Greek diners prevalent in the southwestern Connecticut sprawl where I hail from, the exterior is adorned with a large banner advertising "$6.99 Korean Pancakes," which I suppose would make this place a more legitimate international house of pancakes than that other blue-roofed ambassador of flapjacks. The interior is rather typical for a Korean restaurant: lots of wood paneling, some private rooms with sliding lattice doors, and a wall proudly draped with a large American flag on one side with a much smaller Korean flag, tastefully tucked behind a potted plant, next to it. The clientele mainly consisted of Korean families, some other Asian ethnicities, I suspect, with the occasional Caucasian or three sprinkled throughout the crowd. A wailing baby serenaded me as we sat down.

The waitress arrived quickly and was quite courteous and patient, though she clearly did not have an absolute command of English and ordering was slowly deliberative. Allow me the opportunity to make a quick aside on the often-repeated complaint that members of Korean wait staff are rude. Personally, I don't recall ever receiving rude service in a Korean restaurant. Brusque, certainly, paternalistic even (especially with respect to Korean BBQ), but, from my own statistically insignificant sample set of observations, that mainly stems from my lack of Korean competency and their inability to speak fluently in English. Rather unsurprisingly, they don't tend to chat you up when they lack the linguistic ability to do so. Indeed, I am sure most must feel some embarrassment about being unable to fully understand the demands of customers outside of the occasional one word order or demonstrative semaphore, so I would chalk up brusqueness to these factors rather than a malicious intent to slight.

The panchan we received, which is meant to be an accompaniment to the rice, but often acts as a (large) amuse bouche, was quite frankly poor. The kimchi was soggy, leaden, and dull. It was clearly made that day, which one would normally think is a benefit, but for kimchi is a decided deficiency. Kimchi is a pickled dish that needs time to ferment. Given time, the spices actually mellows, the tangy acidity increases, the leaves of the cabbage can become deliciously crisp, and overall it can leave a refreshing impression on the palate. This dish had none of those things. The other complimentary dishes were slightly better: the bean sprouts were also a little soggy, the cucumbers had decent crunch, but could have fermented a little longer, and everything else was fine and forgettable. The cold kimchi soup they served was actually refreshing. This was fairly consistent with my experience in the Annandale branch (though the soup was much better there).

We also ordered several of the "$6.99 pancakes": an "oyster pancake," a "seafood pancake" and a "kimchi pancake." The kimchi pancake was the best, conveying brightness and tang to the crisp texture of the pancake (hint: a great way to salvage bad kimchi is to cook it). The seafood pancake and the oyster pancake turned out to be identical in flavor...though I suppose there might have been a nugget of oyster hidden in one of them, though I didn't get it. It was good...not too oily, had good texture, but not something that really stood out.

I also ordered the "spicy seafood soondubu," and this was clearly where this meal shined. You have the option to order soondubu mild, spicy, and "spicy spicy;" being faint of palate now, I chose spicy and it was just barely below my heat tolerance threshold. But, nonetheless, the soup was delicious, especially with the soft, creamy, and custardy tofu. It also comes with a raw egg, which I recommend you crack and mix the raw white and yolk into the soup. It comes boiling hot, so by the time you stir the egg into the broth, it is thoroughly cooked. It adds such an extra dimension of creaminess to dish, I could only shake my head in sadness when I saw other tables with their unused eggs. The soup also had two head-on shrimp and others miscellaneous bits of fruits de mer, and you could taste them in the broth. Well done!

The surprise was the the galbi, i.e., the sliced, marinated short ribs. The restaurant does not specialize in BBQ, but nonetheless, the kitchen produced as fine an example of galbi as I have had in a DMV Korean restaurant. It was moist, juicy, flavorful, and properly broiled. The marinade wasn't over-sweetened (which mars most of the Korean BBQ I have had in the past) with sugar, though there was a bed of sauteed onions, which I suspect was broiled with the ribs, which lended itself to the dish. All in all, a truly nice surprise.

As we left, it was near closing time, so I got a peek of the staff meal, and it looked like they were actually eating dishes from the regular menu. They were eating nakji jeongol, which is "casserole" of sauteed small octopus in a spicy sauce. I haven't had there rendition of this classic here, but I've heard mixed things. But, of course, octopus is not exactly a crowd pleaser, so it might be good. It certainly looked it and I might try it next time.

If you've never been to a Korean restaurant before, this place might not be the best place to start. As noted, this place specializes in only a select few dishes and is geared mainly to the traditional Korean palate. For the most part, within this limited scope, it is done well (and quite frankly better than at its sister branch in Annandale (though I've only been there once)). But, if you aren't familiar with these flavors, it might be a little too much, too soon, and you would probably be better served trying Yechon, which serves a wider variety of dishes and BBQ.

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