"There are not four Korean restaurants in Kansas City," said a friend of mine who is something of an expert in the cuisine of the Korean peninsula. "There are seven."
My mind scanned the places I knew: Choga Korean Restaurant, Chung's Rainbow Restaurant, Chosun Korean BBQ, Sobahn. Where were the others? How had I missed them?
My friend explained that the three I'd failed to recall aren't exclusively Korean but serve select dishes from that country's culinary repertoire. At the Red Snapper, on Ward Parkway, chef Casey Chao prepares a few entrées from his native Korea. And Café Vie, a coffeehouse in Overland Park operated by the Ahn family, offers an incredibly good bulgogi taco — an overstuffed wrap, really — in addition to its pho bowls, rice bowls and bubble teas.
Then there's Kokoro Maki House, a small sushi emporium in Waldo where patrons order at a counter from a collection of traditional maki (California and caterpillar rolls, for example), nigiri sushi, ramen bowls and plates of fried rice. A lot of the traffic in this storefront restaurant is carryout, but if you choose to eat inside the lilac-colored dining room — shielded from the traffic and grime of 75th Street with translucent shoji screens — the employees will bring out your meal on a tray.
That's the best way to enjoy Kokoro's eight fine Korean dishes, which demand a certain amount of drama that is best conveyed inside the dining room rather than at your kitchen table. The serving of the banchan, those little dishes of condiments, is done with aplomb here. The servers patiently explain why each little bowl is an important component to the bigger picture: a modest but appealing assortment of grilled meats, a bubbling bowl of tofu soup, or the Korean comfort food bibim bap (mixed rice, according to my Korean friends, often prepared as a way to use leftovers from the previous night's meal).
A full range of tastes — salty, sour, sweet, bitter — is encompassed in these coaster-size dishes: a clump of fiery and briny kimchi, ribbons of garlicky fish cake, tart pickled vegetables. These condiments and a discreet dab of Kokoro's sinus-clearing chili paste, gochujang, are necessary additions to the mounds of bland white rice served with the sizzling plates of stir-fried spicy pork (more sweet and gingery than hot) or the marinated short ribs. Those ribs seem to be sliced rib-eye at Kokoro, marinated in a brassy soy-and-brown-sugar sauce, then flash-grilled. They're tasty but a bit chewy.
White rice in any dish is the culinary equivalent of a blank canvas until it's given a kind of de Kooning treatment with chili paste, tissue-thin sheets of pungent cabbage kimchi, and pickled vegetables. The selection of banchan presented here isn't as elaborate as the condiment assortment at other Korean restaurants, but it's serviceable. Besides, the meals at Kokoro qualify as inexpensive, and none of the Korean dishes costs more than $13.
If American diners have a favorite Korean dish, it's probably dolsot bibim bap. Kokoro's version requires a certain amount of tactile attention — or, as I prefer to call it, work.
Unlike regular bibim bap, which is simply a bowl of rice (with, perhaps, a little beef) topped with tiny mounds of vegetables and an egg, the dolsot bibim bap is served in a white-hot stone bowl, which cooks the raw egg and slightly crisps the rice to give it a delicious crunch. Mixing up the concoction with a spoon blends together the firm matchsticks of carrot and squash with the mushrooms and radishes and steamy lettuce. The result is a supple do-it-yourself stir-fry that can be eaten as is or punched up with kimchi and chili paste.
There are so few places around here that serve bibim bap — or any of the more ass-kicking Korean dishes, such as the head-spinning stew kimchi jjigae that blends slow-simmered pork, garlic and red-pepper paste — that Kokoro deserves more attention. If, like me, you've driven past the place for years and dismissed it as just another midtown sushi joint, then it may be time to pull over.
Kokoro's sushi is the restaurant's calling card, and it's fresh, if solidly average. The signature maki roll here is a prettily constructed cylinder of crispy shrimp tempura, spicy "crab" (the crabmeat used by the sushi chef is clearly imitation) and cream cheese. A New York roll has pieces of apple. But the oddest assemblage at this restaurant is a savory roll wrapped around banana tempura and served with a sweet chili sauce. If you've ever wondered what banana bread might taste like in a rice wrapper, this is your roll. But don't confuse it with the banana tempura offered on the dessert menu. (There's fried cheesecake, too, because of course there is.)
There's no alcohol served at Kokoro Maki House. If a diner longs for a cool swig of Taedonggang beer with his or her bowl of sun dubu, well, that's what takeout is for. But there are free refills on the fountain drinks. And Pepsi products, like cream cheese and imitation crab, are compatible with the culinary traditions of any country.