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Archive for Thursday, March 29, 2001

THE MAG: KOREAN CONNECTION

March 29, 2001

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Murra Cafe delivers authentic Eastern dishes in a Western setting

When Murra Cafe needed another server, they did what any restaurant would do and posted a "Help Wanted" sign in the window. But when they needed another cook, the family operating this Korean restaurant restricted its search. Not just anyone who might happen by their storefront in the I-70 business center would qualify. No, for this job, the chef needed someone with real experience. So she hired her sister -- who arrived last week from Korea.

Such a move may seem like a leap of faith -- not to mention luggage -- particularly for a new restaurant serving ethnic food from a floundering mall. But consider this: the regulars are loyal, newcomers should be pleasantly surprised and scaredy-cats can eat the chicken tenders. The restaurant even holds a bit of an insurance policy by supplementing its Korean lunch and dinner menu with an American-style breakfast.

"Unique. Healthy. Delicious." That's both advertisement and mandate for Murra, which our

waitress told us is the English phonetic spelling for a Korean word meaning "to dine." It is unique -- although reminiscent of other Asian foods -- and certainly healthy, with its emphasis on sticky rice and vegetables. It's also delicious, just not in the way Americans expect. Although known for its spiciness -- red pepper is a basic seasoning -- Korean food won't leave you red-faced and sniffling as long as you remember to mix everything with rice.

To dine

with a serving of carrots, green beans and mushrooms that mellows and enhances the barbecue flavor.

Many entrees are lighter, such as jop-chae-bop, a traditional dish of sweet potato noodles, vegetables and beef. The sweet noodles, set against a tangy backdrop of seasonings, produced a combination that was tasty but much less aggressive than the barbecue. Another largely vegetable creation is the bi-bim-bop, which may sound like a Top 40 song, but, thankfully, has more personality. For this, a large bowl of rice was colorfully encircled by several small helpings of spinach, bean sprouts, carrots, zucchini and mushrooms, then topped with a garnish of sliced beef. While very bland on arrival, it heated up perfectly with some splashes of pepper sauce.

Either of these choices would pair well with the hearty "Mommy's Special," straightforward meat-filled pastries available as an appetizer or entree. Also good were the spicy rice dumplings. These chewy sticks of pressed rice, served in a hot sauce, have an unfamiliar texture that takes a few bites to get used to, but they're worth it.

seafood soup containing crab, shrimp, squid, clams and tofu. Our waitress warned us that this was a labor-intensive dish, and she was right. We dutifully de-shelled many of these sea creatures prior to eating. I was a little disappointed here, though; the tradeoff for a flavorful broth is seafood that becomes somewhat rubbery in the cooking.

One perk to Korean food is the several small side dishes served to the entire table. Included among these is, of course, kimchi, a pickled cabbage with hot pepper sauce that is uniquely and ubiquitously Korean. (Kimchang, the making of kimchi, gets its own festival during the autumn harvest.) There are also other nibbles of things like vegetable-studded miniature pancakes and fried tofu, both of which were quite good. And, remembering mom's advice to "just try it!," I discovered that even bean curd jelly is edible. Our table was cluttered with dishes attesting to the various tastes available. You may not like Korean food, but you cannot legitimately complain of limited choices.

The right setting

Murra's food deserves an environment that makes you want "to dine"; on this score the restaurant is on the right track but should do more. The original, unusual artwork brings modernity, but the overall feeling is somewhat spare. There is a lot of yellow wall but not very many pictures; a lot of tables but a dearth of table decoration. An attractive entryway is constructed to buffer the seating from the outside, but the kitchen could use more separation.

On the plus side, our waitress, an American, was attentive and available. Most importantly, she was willing and patient in her tasks of describing the food, explaining the serving techniques and fielding questions.

Although Murra's chef worked for years as an American cook, I found breakfast the least memorable meal. Not that there was anything wrong with the vegetarian omelette, hash browns and blueberry pancakes. But my best breakfast from Murra? Leftovers -- from dinner the night before.

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