When the semifinalists for the James Beard Award for best new restaurant in America were announced a few months ago, all the expected players were present and accounted for: the big, the prestigious, the expensive. But there was one restaurant on the list that was unlike any others. It’s called Baroo and it’s a place so different that it’s difficult to know where to even begin the discussion.
Because Baroo only has one proper table, and no sign over the door. In fact, the only thing that marks the business is the faded etching from the Thai restaurant that used to occupy the space. Moreover, the restaurant serves a type of food — experimental fermentation cuisine with Korean, Italian, and vegan influences — that most people never even knew existed. All while being located in a part of Los Angeles that can most charitably be described as “not the kind of place you would expect experimental fermentation cuisine.”
Most improbably of all, the entire restaurant only has two employees: head chef Kwang Uh and his business partner/sous chef/waiter/college buddy Matthew Kim.
When I first walked into Baroo, Chef Kwang wasn’t even in the restaurant. Two minutes later, he jogged through the doors, out of breath, clutching a package of napkins from a nearby liquor store. This man ran from his own kitchen, during service, to buy napkins. Not because he was too nice to send a lackey, but for the simple reason that no lackey exists. How many other James Beard-nominated chefs would make a napkin run in the middle of service?
Despite its many quirks, this restaurant, on Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilton, sandwiched between the glitzy faux grime of Silver Lake, and the grimy faux glitz of Hollywood, still deserved its place amongst the other nominees. Because Baroo — weird, small, and impractical though it may be — is one of the best and most exciting restaurants I have eaten at in my entire life. And it costs less than the Cheesecake Factory.
Historically, I’ve always liked kimchi, but more for the challenge of consuming it than for the actual pleasure of eating. I typically view each leaf of that spicy, squeaky cabbage as a palette-shredding test of my resolve; each bite another opportunity to answer the question that has haunted mankind since the invention of cabbage: am I really going to let a goddamn leaf defeat me?
Granted, my usual blood alcohol content while eating Korean BBQ may account for some of my more aggressive feelings toward fermented vegetables. But the kimchi at Baroo was different; the kimchi at Baroo was flavored with pineapple. The combination of kimchi and pineapple sounded weird at the moment (and still sounds a little weird, to be honest), but the hints of sweet and sour and tart helped balance out the rest of the flavors in the kimchi fried rice. And there were a lot of flavors:
Chewy, smoky bacon. A sous vide egg (and the velvety yolk that comes from a sous vide egg). Crisp potato chips. A dollop of pesto. And all served over lightly fried rice.
Just take a look at all those ingredients: bacon, egg, potato chips, pesto, and fried rice. Each of those ingredients is usually heavy and greasy and fatty. It would only stand to reason that dropping all those pieces in the same bowl would result in a heavy, greasy, and overwhelming cacophony of loud and inharmonious actors, not unlike The Ridiculous 6. But when I ate the kimchi fried rice at Baroo, it did not taste like an Adam Sandler vehicle, it did not taste like a slightly more successful train wreck like The Expendables 2, it was not even a well-meaning disappointment like A Very Murray Christmas.
This dish was so flavorful, so light, so well composed, and so harmonious that I ultimately forgot it was an ensemble of normally assertive divas. This dish was The Blues Brothers.
Before, I’d always thought of fried rice the way that many people (chefs included) probably still think of fried rice today: a way to clear out the fridge. Old rice, bits of vegetable, and some scraps of meat obliterated with heat and oil until it turns delicious — not because the dish is particularly well composed or inventive, but because any food with that much fat and char has no choice but to be good. But the kimchi fried rice at Baroo showed me that the dish doesn’t have to be an afterthought, or a grease-filled comfort food; fried rice could be expertly-balanced, light, and, in the best possible way, part of a fine dining experience. And it only cost me $11.
When the noorook arrived at my table, it looked like the kind of alien food the art department on Star Trek would mock up for a space monster with two heads and no mouth and enough tentacles to stifle even Commander Riker’s unbridled sexuality. The plate was covered in a mound of purple grain, pickled onions, and a light dusting of cheese. If Chef Kwang hadn’t earned my trust so completely with the kimchi fried rice, I might have even been a little scared to try this. And honestly, I was a little scared.
But I did try it. It tasted exactly as strange as I expected… but the way it tasted was also magical. And that was the most unexpected thing of all.
These fermented grains tasted so different that I had (and still have) a hard time organizing the flavors in my brain. It tasted sweet, and almost like a rhubarb pie, but it also had the texture of al dente risotto. The fermentation was present throughout, but the saltiness of the cheese flakes balanced the sour.
When you go to Baroo, don’t order the noorook because it’s strange. Don’t order it for the challenge of new flavors. Don’t order it because it would look great on Instagram (and it does). Order the noorook because it is the best dish at one of the best new restaurants in America. And it only costs $12.
Not everything is weird or experimental at Baroo. They also serve an (almost) standard plate of pasta. Outside of the dehydrated beef tendon adjacent to the noodles and the fact that it is eaten with chopsticks, this plate of handmade pappardelle with oxtail ragu both looked and tasted like traditional pasta. In fact, the strangest thing about this dish was how unexpectedly good it was. Because inside that restaurant with no sign and one table, with the bins of fermenting vegetables against the wall, a Korean chef served me the best plate of pappardelle I have ever eaten (Italy included).
There wasn’t anything experimental or strange or even unexpected about this pasta. Granted, the dehydrated beef tendon was not on the “molto autentico” side of things, but whenever those fancified pork rinds touched the sauce, they would crackle like garlic sizzling in a pan of olive oil. This pasta didn’t just taste like authentic Italian food, it also sounded like an authentic Italian kitchen. And it only costs $15.
When I was eating the pasta, I kept waiting for “the trick.” The revelation that the noodles were braided creek moss or that the meat was made from yogurt curds. But there was no trick; this was just an amazing plate of pasta. Because Chef Kwang doesn’t make weird food just for the sake of making weird food. He is making the food he is the most passionate about, and it just so happens that a lot of it is “weird” to our expected tastes. But tastes can change. Maybe it just takes someone like Chef Kwang to show us that the unknown and unexpected and weird doesn’t have to be scary.
Sometimes it can even be delicious.