The Kore Experience is Pure Joy

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Pictured: At Kore Steakhouse, cooking your own food at the table is more than half the fun. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

The older I get, the less I feel giddy. It’s just not a common emotion for men like me on the wrong side of 40. I’m happy to report, however, that giddiness overcame me before, during, and after my first Kore experience.

The Korean barbecue restaurant in the new Waterside at Lakewood Ranch represents everything I love about dining out: inventive flavors, sizzling meats, and a bit of theater. My wife and I were at the Waterside Farmer’s Market when it first opened its doors. I was vegan at the time, and I distinctly remember standing across the street as a dance troupe performed and excitement swirled as I knew I wouldn’t be able to partake of the delicacies that lay within. I like to think that my eyes welled with soggy tears as joyous anticipation swirled around me.

Fast forward to September. I eat meat again, and “Korean barbecue” is one of my favorite word pairings. My first experience with it came when I lived in Los Angeles, where there are multiple Gyu-Kaku locations in the San Fernando Valley. My friends and I, living our best lives at the time, would starve ourselves for the better part of a day and show up there at 10 p.m. for happy hour, when everything in the joint was half price. That they trusted us with a piping hot grill in the center of our table remains a mystery. Thoughts of their marinades and tender cuts of meat cooked to perfection — paired with ice-cold, cheap beer — are seared into my memory.

This explains the giddiness I felt as my wife, Janet, and I decided on a whim to try it for the first time on a recent Friday night. There was a short wait — just enough time to walk across the street to Good Liquid and order to-go beers from the bar and walk around for a few minutes while we waited for that magic text message letting us know our table, our ticket to culinary ecstasy, was ready.

The first thing you notice when you’re seated at a grill table at Kore are the six tiny dishes of palate cleansers — or, banchan — at the edge of the table. There were pickled cucumbers with chili oil, Korean egg salad, fermented spicy radish, onion and jalapeños, fermented Napa cabbage and a perfectly potent kimchi. You can also use them, as I found out quickly, as little kickers to add to your tender bites of meat.

It’s also important to know that if you’re sitting at a table with a grill, you will be expected to cook your own food. But that’s more than half the fun. It makes you an active participant. You’re not just a spectator. Your hands have something to do, and the act of cooking together, talking about the differences and subtleties in each cut of meat fosters conviviality like no other meal experience I’ve had here.

We started with shishito peppers because my wife told me I had to eat at least one vegetable, despite my heavy protest. Once we got those out of the way (they were excellent, by the way), it was meat time. Meat time!

We then ordered a couple of kitchen-prepared appetizers, the bulgogi mandoo and the KFC (Korean fried chicken). Both set the tone for the evening’s flavor profiles, which tend to be a constant push and pull between sweet and spice — both vying for your approval like gladiators in a ring of umami.

Then came the meats, brought to us in a succession of small, shiny gold plates that held a heap of optimism. I delighted in grilling each cut separately, giving them their own space on the grill. We had thin-sliced beef bulgogi, ribeye, filet mignon, New York strip, pork bulgogi. Long after Janet tapped out, I kept ‘em coming with the beef navel (far more delicious than it sounds!) and the beautifully marbled galbi (short ribs).

Every option was distinct in its flavor. Every dish brought with it a new take on that sweet-n-spicy tango.

With every succulent bite, I did that thing that dads do where they lean back in their chair and make those guttural chirping noises when our tiny brains prevent us from saying the words, “This is delicious.”

And finally, it was over. I wasn’t sad that it had ended. I was elated that it had happened.

Kore touts itself as a tipless restaurant — another local rarity. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the service was phenomenal. Everyone who came to the table was genuinely friendly and happy to be there. As were we … giddy, in fact

Kore Steakhouse, 1561 Lakefront Drive, Sarasota, Florida 34240, 941-928-5673, Koresteakhouse.com.

Pictured: At Kore Steakhouse, cooking your own food at the table is more than half the fun. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

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