Rice sizzles when it hits the searing-hot black stone bowl. A crispy crust builds as it comes to the table. By then, it’s time for the diner to mix up the other ingredients: sweet and spicy pork, yellow squash, zucchini, bean sprouts, daikon, and carrots, to name a few. The bright colors are arranged over the rice like panes in a rose window, with an over-easy egg at the center. It feels like a shame to ruin the artwork, but the greatest pleasure of okdol bibimbap is, after all, its taste.
This Korean classic’s closest cognate is paella. Instead of the Mediterranean dish’s saffron, its dominant flavor is gochujang, a fermented chile paste that’s almost as sweet as it is hot.
Bibimbap is one of Ben Chen’s favorite dishes. “Hot and spicy. Way to go! Way to go!” he says in accented but clear English. Chen is excitedly discussing the addictive nature of the bibimbap, dukboki and yookgaejang he recently introduced at the Peking Duck House, the Winooski restaurant belonging to his father, Peter Chuong.
“It’s very good. I like the spicy,” agrees Chuong.
In 1987, the family, natives of the Guangdong region of China, purchased the 1840s building that once housed the Burlington Woolen Mill Company. Chen, 35, recalls the glory days of the Peking Duck House, when the many-chandeliered, two-floor dining room would fill up every day with IBM employees on their lunch break. He blames the current poor economy for drastically quieter hours in the traditional Americanized Chinese restaurant. The Winooski market has grown more crowded, too; Peking Duck was one of two dining options in town when it opened.
Late this past summer, Chen moved from Boston back to South Burlington, leaving his wife and kids in the city, to save his family’s restaurant. It was clear to him that Peking Duck’s old breed of customer was dying out, he says. Chen’s own experience has convinced him that the Asian-restaurant customer of today wants authenticity, or at the very least novelty. “The menu is getting old; it’s time for some new blood,” he says of Peking Duck. “This place, everybody know it. Let’s bring some new customers, do something new.”
Chen knows a thing or two about running a successful dining business. He’s co-owner of Kayuga, a popular Japanese and Korean restaurant in Boston known for its creative maki and late-night sake bombs. Before returning to Vermont, Chen sold off a small percentage of his stake in the business to a new partner. He says his staff is trained well enough that he’s comfortable spending most of his time in Vermont and checking a few days a month on operations in Beantown.
That leaves Chen plenty of time to revive his family’s restaurant. At present, the classic interior remains appealingly unchanged, as do the servers’ white shirts with black pants and bowties. Chen’s first step, on October 1, was to introduce an additional menu page. One side describes 10 Korean dishes, the other, 12 Thai specialties. To entice diners to try the less familiar dishes, the restaurant is letting them buy one new menu item and get the second one at half price until the end of the month.
Chen admits that the new fare comes with a steep learning curve for many regulars. He estimates that, so far, the Korean and Thai dishes account for less than 20 percent of sales. “Not a lot of people order it,” Chen says. “This is countryside. It’s not a big city; they don’t accept things so quickly. We’ve spent 25 years making our old traditional stuff like chicken chow mein. A lot of places don’t do it anymore, but we still have it.” Chen knows those classic dishes appeal to many longtime customers, so, while introducing the new menu, he’s kept Peking Duck’s expansive bill of old-school fare firmly in place.
Chuong says he has already seen some new faces come through the restaurant’s etched-glass doors. “People come in for lunch and dinner,” he says. “Not a lot of Korean around here. We have special for the customers.” Indeed, the only other restaurant serving Korean food in Chittenden County is another half-Chinese one, Naru, in Williston.
Those who dare to order from the Korean menu at Peking Duck are immediately treated to four small panchan, dishes of pickled vegetables that start most Korean restaurant meals. Kimchi is probably the best known to Westerners, and this version is a humdinger. It’s unconventional in the sense that the cabbage is still crisp and fresh tasting (in Korea, the veggies ferment in pots buried underground), but the complex combination of sour, spicy and sweet is undeniably pleasant.
Chen buys the kimchi at a favorite Korean market in Boston, but the rest of his panchan are homemade. Kongnamul, bean sprouts in light, nutty sesame oil; sugared and vinegared carrots and daikon; and hollowed-out, smile-shaped slices of fresh cucumber marinated in gochujang all augur well for the rest of the meal.
When Chen brings out an off-menu plate of kimchijeon, it’s clear he means business. Imagine if a Chinese scallion pancake and a Dutch pannekoek procreated. The fluffy, eggy slices of savory pastry are that delectable. Flattened whole scallions are fried inside, but neither they nor the kimchi overpower the satisfying pancake itself.
It’s an approachable first dish for Korean-food newbies. So is the duk manduguk, a comforting, beef-based soup that could be considered Korea’s answer to Vietnamese pho. Though the dish is usually flavored with bits of nori or even anchovy stock, the Peking Duck version gets none of its pungency from the sea. Instead, the light, beefy broth, eggs and mushrooms provide most of the taste. Chewy slices of rice cake add texture, and pork dumplings filled with onions give the dish a meaty leading player.
“People here don’t know how to enjoy it yet,” says Chen of Korean food. He notes that when he first learned to prepare the cuisine, it challenged him, too: “I had to learn to eat spicy.” Chen realizes that customers may not be as devoted to expanding their palates as he is. That’s why only a few of his dishes are particularly hot.
One exception is the spicy pork bulgogi. Bulgogi, which translates directly as “fire meat,” is a term applied to several varieties of grilled meat, often prepared at the table in Korean barbecue restaurants. In addition to the pork, Peking Duck has a milder option: sugary, sesame-marinated slices of paper-thin beef served on a hot platter with caramelized onions and spinach.
“Everybody can eat bulgogi,” Chen says of the comforting dish.
Still, he finds it safest to assume a certain lack of sophistication in his first-timers. Despite warnings on the menu and from servers, Chen says, several customers have been surprised to feel the heat of the sizzling platters and bowls in which many of the Korean dishes are served. He keeps plenty of “training wheel” chopsticks on hand, held together with rubber bands for the inexperienced to use like tweezers to lift food from plate to mouth.
While Korean food is a new frontier in Burlington, many locals are familiar with Thai food, thanks to restaurants such as Tiny Thai, just a few blocks from Peking Duck. That’s fine with Chen, who enjoys the ease of preparing Thai cuisine. “It’s very simple,” he says. “Curries, the only thing is the curry sauce. It’s very healthy — we don’t use oil, and you have all the coconut. With basil chicken or basil beef, you put the basil in, and you’ve got all the flavor there already.”
Chen’s “twin curry” tastes anything but simple, however. The orange-colored sauce gets its flavor from coconut, specks of chile and tender chunks of mango. Basil leaves add their own footprint on the mix of shrimp, chicken and seven vegetables. Variety is important to Chen, who says that his Korean “master” in Boston taught him to use at least eight vegetables in his bibimbap, and to never serve fewer than four panchan at a meal.
Chen’s sure hand with vegetables may prove useful this winter, when he plans to introduce shabu-shabu at the Peking Duck. The beef hot-pot dish is designed for guests to cook their own food at the table in a steaming bowl of broth, and expertly sliced veggies are a major part of the attraction.
Eventually, Chen would also like to add Kayuga’s trademark sushi to the menu, though he says that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. “I need [to] focus on my new Thai and Korea food now, and I need a good sushi chef with nice sushi bar,” he says. “I can’t do everything all by myself, but I’ll try my best.”
He seems to have been making it work so far. Since returning to Peking Duck, Chen has been running the front of the house and training his father’s chefs to cook Korean and Thai food. But he’s also preparing dishes for guests himself. “I like it way better when I’m wearing my chef hat,” he says. “When you see the [plate] coming back and it’s all empty, you so happy.”
Chen hopes he’ll eventually have the new Peking Duck running smoothly enough that he can spend more time back in Boston. No matter where he is, the young chef says he’ll do whatever he can to keep his family restaurant cooking — and current.