Balance of Power

Balance of Power

Osek’s five-color cuisine paints a picture of healthful dining

By Erica Wayne 04/30/2014

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Osek, or “five colors,” is a 10-month-old Korean restaurant located in the stretch of North Raymond Avenue in Old Pasadena that’s home to a plethora of interesting dining venues — Slater’s 50/50, Osawa, Chado Tea Room, Café Bizou, Grandview Palace and Vertical Wine Bistro. 

The new guys on the block have taken over the site formerly occupied by the much-lamented Yujean Kang in the middle of the west side of the street, and I hope its delicious cuisine will provide it with a clientele that’s as appreciative and faithful.

The restaurant’s L-shaped interior has been completely transformed: Walls are now pale peach and Chinese red with dark wood wainscoting and light wood flooring. The art is abstract and sculptural. Tables are dark wood, but the chairs are upholstered in off-white leatherette. Paper lanterns hang throughout, and there’s a comfy banquette along the long north wall, with soft Korean pop providing background music.

Regarding its name, “Each of the five different colors in the food that is prepared is believed to protect the five different organs in our body …,” states the restaurant’s Web site. “At Osek Korean Cuisine, we believe that it is important to use only the best ingredients and cooking methods to prepare each and every meal, but we also enforce the use of five different colors in each of the dishes to promote healthy and balanced diet.”

The site outlines the benefits of each color: 
Green — green tea, spinach and broccoli — enrich the liver and eyes, and also contain anti-aging and metabolism speeding properties. Next, black (black rice, black beans, shiitake mushrooms and blueberries), protects kidneys and the reproductive system, and possesses cholesterol and blood pressure reduction properties. White, found in squid, bean sprouts, onions and cabbage, protects the lungs and the respiratory system. Yellow, or squash, ginger, carrot, orange and curry, covers the spleen, digestive system and skin. And red is for tomatoes, kimchi and red pepper, which protect the heart and tongue with cancer-preventing properties.

Be that as it may, my friend Pam and I didn’t drop into Osek for the sake of our liver or kidneys. We just like Korean food and figured we’d try out the new place in town. Unlike Gyu-Kaku on Green Street, part of a large international chain, and the unique Gaon on East Colorado Boulevard, to which we are quite partial, Osek isn’t an all-you-can-eat barbecue place. If you order one of the six grilled-meat dishes, it comes to the table already cooked. And the garnishes (panchan) that traditionally accompany the meal are, alas, somewhat fewer.

However, these are small matters. More important is the quality of the cuisine, which is quite high. Since we came in for lunch, we couldn’t try either of the two-person minimum multi-course tasting menus ($28 and $35 per person, respectively), which are only served in the evening. However, we did manage to sample a fair variety of food by ordering an appetizer a la carte, two of the combination entrées and a dessert.

Our starter, “haemul pajeon” (pan-fried green onion pancake filled with various seafood - $10), came from the part of the menu labeled “Small Plates.” It wasn’t. Served in a cast-iron pan, the pancake’s diameter measured at least 10 inches. Along with the golden crispness of its surface and the contrasting unctuousness of the tender interior, there was the wonderful taste of fried onion, bits of baby squid and tiny shrimp. A soy-based dipping sauce, which was almost unnecessary but quite tasty, accompanied it.

One entrée consisted of dak bulgogi, or grilled chicken marinated in Korean chili paste, with sundubu, a soft silk tofu soup with “a choice of beef, seafood, mushroom, vegetables or assorted” and also “a choice of spiciness” ($14). Another, dolsot bibimbap, consisted of steamed rice topped with sautéed vegetables and a choice of beef, pork, tofu or vegetables, served in a sizzling stone bowl. That came with galbi, or grilled marinated beef short-ribs ($16). 

The chicken and beef were delicious, although the ratio of meat to gristle and fat on the short-ribs, sliced thin across the bone, was low. The accompanying panchan consisted of cabbage kimchi, marinated green beans and pickled onion. The sundubu, which we wanted spicy (but wasn’t) and with seafood, was brought to the table boiling hot with an egg for us to break open and stir into the broth. Whole shrimp and open-mouthed clams appeared to watch the procedure as their surroundings thickened around them.
Aside from the pajeon, our favorite dish was definitely the bibimbap, although the rice at the bottom of the pot really hadn’t crisped as much as we’d hoped. We’d ordered pork, and also got a colorful (and healthful) mix of shiitake mushrooms, purple cabbage, bean sprouts, cucumber and carrot, with a cheery-looking sunny side-up egg atop the mixture. It, too, wasn’t spicy enough, but some chili and a couple bites of kimchi fixed the problem.

For dessert we ordered a single “sweet rice cake ice cream,” which cost a mere $2. It turned out to be green tea mochi, which our server considerately cut in half before serving it to us. And she carefully packed up our leftovers so I could share them with my husband for dinner while we finished our green tea (served with nutty toasted rice floating in it, a nice surprise) and awaited our check.

One note: If you happen to be the kind of skeptic who thinks cooking according to the five natural colors is pure hokum, you might want to check out the statistics on life expectancy. Wikipedia provides the latest ones from the World Health Organization, the UN and even (who knew?) the CIA. In every one, South Korea beats the United States by at least a year or two. Perhaps that’s not enough to encourage you to exist on a steady diet of kimchi and bibimbap, but given the quality of Osek’s food, you might want to drop by for an occasional meal. 
 
 
Osek 
Korean Cuisine
67 N. Raymond Ave., 
Pasadena
(626) 644-1299
Beer and wine
Major cards 

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