A glorious snarl of jabchae ($12.99) — almost-translucent sweet-potato noodles stir-fried with vegetables and meat — is a complex, messy delight to work with, a dish that immediately informs you that table manners need to take second place to sheer function. Tofu soup ($9.50) comes with a choice of embellishment (pork, seafood, dumpling, beef kimchi, ramen) and also a single fresh egg. You'll want to crack that instantly into the bubbling stone bowl that's delivered to your table — if you're anything like me, in a more disorderly than dainty fashion.
It's all very visual, too. Should you order the off-menu "steamed egg" ($7.99) dish — beaten eggs, inflated majestically in a searingly hot stone bowl — you'll be rewarded with a dish that comes billowing with tendrils of steam, beckoning your spoon inward. Eggs feature predominantly, and another fine choice therein is the veggie and seafood pancake ($13.99) — served in a large piping-hot skillet that slowly crisps and caramelizes the underside.
There's bulgogi ($10.99-$20.99), various choices of marinated meat that are cooked in stone bowls with yet more incendiary heat — the result being a sizzling and spluttering riot. For what it's worth, the spicy chicken ($11.99), backed by sweet hoisin sauce and crisp cabbage, is a solid bet here.
Many dishes come served with small bowls of condiments that produce an instant flurry of swapping and motion. The condiments, however, come in such bafflingly small quantities as to elicit Oliver Twist-like cries. A single floret of broccoli provided to a table of three, thankfully, didn't generate any fistfights. That's more testament to broccoli than civility, mind you. Similarly, four small chunks of potato and a miserly tangle of bean sprouts didn't amount to much use at all. The pungent thrill of spicy, fermented kimchi was redeemingly delicious, but by the time you've asked for your third refill, no matter how gracious the service, you're simply going to feel guilty.
Then of course there's the centerpiece of the whole menu and the epitome of this highly engaging cuisine — Table BBQ. There's spicy chicken ($25.99), pork belly ($30.99), pork butt ($30.99), brisket ($31.99), marinated select beef ($31.99), marinated prime beef ($41.99) and boneless short rib (market price). We went with the latter, assuming that anything with a market-price sticker must be something special — for reference, it was $47.99.
The meat is wheeled out ceremoniously to the table via cart and thoughtfully presented in overlapping layers on a large platter. In the case of the short rib, the display is finished with a flourish of green onion and mushroom for both good effect and garnish. A gas-powered tabletop burner is planted on the table, and the inverted woklike cooking area is greased with glistening butter — ready for you to impress your tablemates with your cooking chops. At this point, with tongs in hand, meat to the ready and grill lightly smoking, you've only yourself to blame for a less-than-stellar plate of food. That short rib was meltingly delicious and worth every penny, plenty to share with one or two friends.
Over several meals, it seemed almost impossible to go wrong with Seoul Garden's extensive menu. Korean fried chicken ($8.99) proved the only dud of a dish I sampled. Despite its promise, the dish flaunted a cloyingly sweet sauce that seemed at odds with a menu that otherwise didn't seem overtly Americanized.
A few other points about Seoul Garden. The restaurant's exterior isn't likely to spur love at first sight; give it a chance, though. The interior is clean and smart, if not dark, and parking is ample. Service is unfailingly friendly, but finding its feet amid recent staffing changes; a little patience goes a long way. There's no alcohol and no dessert save a solitary option of Korean Moon Pie, and most dishes don't come with rice unless you ask ($1 per bowl), but now you know.
If you're the kind of diner who requires a maître d', runcible spoon or prix fixe menu, I might suggest Seoul Garden is not for you. I may also suggest you're no fun. If you're the kind of diner who likes to get to grips with your food, it might be right up your alley.
Stuart Melling also writes at www.theutahreview.com and www.gastronomicslc.com — he can be found on Twitter @gastronomicslc