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.
We didn't need these flavorful little dishes to punch up the excellent, spicy, marinated pork with vegetables. Also excellent was the brined and boiled pork bossam, sliced like an old-fashioned roast and sided with leaves of fresh, cool napa cabbage. We folded hunks of pork in the cabbage leaves and spiced them up with kimchi and a couple of slices of raw garlic.
To cool things down after the meal, servers bring out cups of cold cinnamon tea. Carol Ann, who has traveled through Korea, was suitably impressed. "In Seoul," she said, "a place like this would be considered a fancy, elegant restaurant."
It's certainly the fanciest Korean restaurant in Overland Park, but it's inexpensive enough that it couldn't really be considered elegant. The costliest dish on the menu is a wonderful platter of beef short ribs; every other entrée is under $20. Actually, the joint would be a lot more elegant if the Kwons invested in napkins: They're currently using cocktail-sized napkins, which are ridiculous for anything involving eating.
As a cost-saving measure, those napkins are a turnoff, but the economies of the menu are alluring. On the night I dined with Lou Jane, Bob and Truman, we ordered a lot of dishes to share, and the tab wasn't at all daunting. Lou Jane, back from a trip to Turkey, had severe laryngitis and was forced to eat in silence while Truman dominated the conversation at the table, comparing Korean cuisine with that of his native Florida. "It's all stews and fish and a lot of pickled and spicy stuff," Truman said.
Lou Jane rolled her eyes and took a swig of white wine. "Just order for me," she rasped, grabbing my arm. I took the liberty of ordering her a classic Korean comfort dish: dol sot bibim bap, a hot stone bowl filled with rice — deliciously crunchy from the intense heat of the bowl — along with vegetables and chopped beef and topped with a fried egg. Bob, the meat-and-potatoes eater in this group, had cast a wary eye at all the spicy condiments (though he'd bravely sampled a few) and was thrilled to find a familiar-sounding galbi steak, marinated in a sweet-soy sauce and served on a sizzling iron platter. It was as good as anything he's eaten at the Golden Ox, just without a baked potato.
Although Sobahn's fare leans heavily toward meat and fish, the Kwons do serve vegetarian dishes, and I really enjoyed the dubu steak, not steak at all but fat squares of pan-sautéed tofu in a silky amber sauce that was slightly, but not cloyingly, sweet.
Truman, meanwhile, was unnerved by the stainless-steel chopsticks. "You can either knit a sweater with these," he complained, "or use them for a surgical procedure. But not for eating." He was much happier when the server brought him a fork, which he used effectively on his yukgae jang stew of sliced beef, which was a little more fiery than he expected. "I've never tasted anything like it," he said as he grabbed his water glass. Claiming that he'd burnt his tongue, Truman was a little less chatty during dinner, and Lou Jane smiled. "Here," she croaked out, pushing a dish of hot radish kimchi in his direction, "eat more of this."
He revived as we sipped cold cinnamon tea and he soon found his tongue, cross-examining Sharon Kwon.
"Don't you miss singing opera?" he asked. "Wouldn't you rather be back in New York City instead of stuck here in ol' Overland Park?"
"I love being back and working with my family," she said.
That kind of heart shows at Sobahn.