Review: Soban Korean Cuisine, Petaluma, Calif.
Soban Korean Cuisine opened in May, replacing Hana’s Dining as Petaluma’s main Korean restaurant. This is how Soban touts its locavore cred:
“Any ingredient that is not imported from South Korea is locally sourced, bringing you the best of both worlds — the authentic taste of Korea along with the unparalleled quality of local products.”
The attention to details such as the higher-caliber brands of beverages selected and freshness of ingredients at Soban shows how “traditional” hanshik can be exceptional.
Many Korean restaurants include a spread of 반찬 banchan (side dishes), ranging from a few items an assortment that covers the table. Soban’s banchan included a mix of 우엉조림 ooungjorim (shredded burdock root braised in soy sauce), 배추 김치 baechu kimchi (the common cabbage and red chili variety), 오이지 oeeji (cucumber pickle), 단무지 dahnmooji (yellow daikon pickle, a common accompaniment to 짜장면 jjajangmyeon), 오댕 odeng (fish cake) and 무채 김치 moochae kimchi (shredded radish kimchi).
Usually when you are presented with banchan, there’s usually one item that is lesser than the others, but not at Soban. Each tasted freshly made and flavorful. The baechu kimchi was crispy and spicy. The ooungjorim was mild and lightly soy flavored, finely julienned rather than in thick strips. The oeeji was crisp, and the moochae kimchi so fresh I could still taste the naturally spiciness of the raw radish through the red chili marinade.
Many Westerners new to Korean cuisine have this idea that the banchan are the appetizers, but that is not the case. Though a number of Korean restaurants in the West — every one I’ve visited — bring them out before the main dishes, banchan are supposed to accompany the rest of the meal.
Starting with starters
In our first visit, we focused on the starter menu, largely because the social buzz was over the Soban fried chicken. We ordered 김치전 kimchi jeon (savory kimchi pancake with green onions, $9.95), 녹두전 nokdujeon (mung bean paste pancake with green onions, also called 빈대떡 beendaeddeok, $9.95), and 떡보끼 ddeokbokki (fat cylindrical rice cakes in a spicy sauce, $11.95). We added 된장 찌개 doenjang jjigae (savory fermented soybean paste stew, $10.95) to our order when we learned the deep fryer was out of commission.
We also ordered a bottle of 막걸리 makgeoli (somewhat sweet rice wine, $10), but it wasn’t the very-sweet version we often get from a local grocer. The server said it was specifically chosen to be sweet but not overly so. When we didn’t finish it off quickly enough, the server was kind enough to bring us an ice bucket to keep it chilled as we meandered our way through the meal nibbling, dunking and sipping our way through the ddeokbokki, jeon, and doenjang jjigae.
In our first visit, the restaurant was quiet with modern jazz playing in the background.
Fried on the second visit
We returned the following weekend, which happened to be Father’s Day in the U.S. You might not think a Korean restaurant in Northern California with a small Korean community would be a reservation-only hot spot for that day, when steak and barbecue reigns supreme, but you would be wrong. I called on early Sunday afternoon to make sure they would be open but was surprised to learn a party of 35 people had the place booked from 5–7 p.m. The earliest my family could get a seat would be 7:30 p.m. A little late to eat dinner, but we’re flexible that way.
The restaurant was over half full when we arrived just after 7:30 p.m. If there was music playing, I didn’t hear it over the jovial folks sitting at the table next to us.
We couldn’t order the same thing twice, so we tried some Soban chicken ($9.95) — the fryer was operational! — and vegetarian 잡채 japchae (당면 dahngmyeon, or clear sweet potato noodles, in a garlicky soy sauce and sesame oil sauce, $9.95) from the starter menu. From the entrees we picked 매운닭구이 meh-oon dahkgooee (spicy grilled chicken, $14.95), the cross-cultural favorite 닭 돌솥 비빔밥 dahk dolsot bibimbap (mixture of vegetables with rice finished-fried in sesame oil at the bottom of a hot stone bowl, $15.95) and 김치 비빔국수 kimchi bibimgooksu (spicy kimchi sauce over noodles, $11.95). We ordered 복분자주 bukbunjaju (blackberry wine, $16, an ultrapremium label) and Cass beer ($4) to wash it down.
The Soban chicken was fried in a light tempura batter and glazed with a soy and sesame sauce. Even though it was deep-fried, it wasn’t greasy.
Dolsot bibimbap and japchae seem to be two highly approachable Korean dishes for Westerners, from what I’ve noticed among hanshik neophytes. I’ve sometimes detected sour notes played on these two standards at some Korean or fusion restaurants, yet Soban nailed each cue. The japchae had the right balance of soy sauce and sesame oil — often, the failure is in too much soy — and the complementing shiitake mushroom, carrot, onion and spinach were perfectly cooked.
Dolsot bibimbap is a rather simple dish, but some other places have skimped on ingredients or made it more like a Western salad. No joke: one Japanese restaurant with Korean items served me the dish with chopped iceberg lettuce.
The kimchi bibimgooksu was the spiciest dish on our table, but the heat was hiding under a layer of sweetness until I had nearly finished the bowl.
Soban is tucked in The Plaza North shopping center, aka Kmart Center, between Kmart and Lola’s Market.
Soban’s Korean Cuisine
255 N McDowell Blvd., Petaluma, CA 94954
Hours: Monday, closed; Tuesday–Friday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday, noon–9 p.m.