Sharon Kwon, who now manages Korean Restaurant Sobahn for her parents, used to be an opera singer.
No one in this family had any restaurant experience prior to opening Sobahn nine months ago. Sharon's mother, Suzanna Kwon, worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 19 years before following her dream to open her own restaurant; she's also the head chef. Suzanna's husband, Paul, had been in the dry-cleaning business. When the Kwons signed the lease on their space, they encouraged Sharon to move back from New York City, where she was studying opera, and start serving stews and marinated meats.
So far, Sharon says, she likes the hospitality business, and she already has put her imprint on the music played over the sound system: really fine classic jazz.
The family named its restaurant after a piece of furniture. "A sobahn is a small table used for intimate family dinners," Sharon said as she escorted my friend Carol Ann and me across the dining room to a rustic-looking table that wasn't a sobahn but was thick and solid as something on a cattle ranch. Handmade, Sharon said, from antique wood. The chairs were as heavy as barbells, though surprisingly comfortable once we sat down. (You won't want to get up and down a lot during dinner here: Every time I moved the chair, I felt that I was performing a Pilates exercise.)
Sobahn now occupies a storefront on Shawnee Mission Parkway that, for many years, was the dumpy Royal China, a restaurant serving traditional Chinese-American fare and Korean dishes. (For a while, there was even a Sunday Korean buffet.) The Kwons gutted the old place to create a clean, colorful dining area that doesn't have nearly as many Oriental gewgaws as its former tenant, although a few dozen plastic figurines of adorable Korean children, in a variety of native costumes, are glued to the ledge separating the dining room from the main entrance. Sharon tried to explain the meaning of the little figurines, but Carol Ann decided that they were the Korean version of Precious Moments figures. I'll never think of them as anything else.
Sobahn is certainly the most tastefully appointed of the metro's four Korean restaurants. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say if you also take into account the attentive service and the excellent cuisine, Sobahn is already the city's best Korean restaurant.
Oh, sure, they have some things to work out. On that first visit, Carol Ann started our meal with kimbap, which looks like slices of a traditional sushi roll wrapped in dried seaweed, but with a center of pickled radish, cucumber, carrots, cooked eggs, red cabbage and crabmeat. "We don't usually eat these with soy sauce and wasabi," Sharon explained, "but if you want, I'll bring some out." The kimbap was tasty without the soy, but the kun mandu, pan-fried dumplings stuffed with chopped pork, chives, onion and cellophane noodles, needed a little something, so out came the soy and a thick chile paste.
Following the tradition of all Korean restaurants, the Kwons bring out a lot of "little somethings" before serving the main courses: little bowls of condiments that add different character notes — fiery, salty, crunchy — to each dish. At that first meal, there was a tiny bowl of fish cakes; another bowl with cubes of potato marinated in brown sugar, garlic and soy; and in another, a swirl of wild greens stewed in garlic. And there were paper-thin cucumber slices, fermented as boochoo kimchi in red pepper, garlic and ginger, and a head-clearing spicy paste made with chopped shrimp, vinegar and chiles.