Goon Man Du. Translation? Pan fried dumplings, if one speaks Korean. Really, really good ones in every language.
Welcome to Stone Bowl, a true Korean restaurant conveniently located just off the Long Shoals Road exit of I-26. Complete with Korean/English menu, Korean staff and chopsticks with every meal.
Armed (as I so often am) with absolutely no knowledge but a great hunger to explore different culinary cultures, I luckily fell into the hands of Jason Im, manager of Stone Bowl and brother of Kristina Im, who co-owns the restaurant with partner Rita Chen. He patiently navigated the menu with me and explained a bit about the culture and the food.
Inherently healthy, Korean food relies heavily on vegetables, steamed rice and condiments to supplement seafood and meats. On my first visit, I chose a very traditional dish (as well as the namesake of the restaurant) a Doi Ji Stonebowl, with grilled slices of spicy marinated pork. As Jason explained, “The stone bowl is one dish that everyone loves in Korea.”
A blistering hot bowl was presented and Jason proceeded to stir the components of rice, an array of vegetables, pork and fried egg together with a judicious jolt of a hot sauce (really more of a paste than a sauce). The fried egg turned the dish into some resemblance of a fried rice dish and I was more than eager to dig in. My lunch partner chose a “Lunch Box” offering featuring Bul Go Gi, grilled slices of the most tender and flavorful sliced beef I’ve had in some time. With it, in a lovely gift box tray were two pan fried dumplings, Kimbab (a delicious rice roll), steamed rice and a cup of the daily soup, which happened to be miso-based that day.
On my second visit, I started with those lovely dumplings I mentioned earlier. Served with a soy dipping sauce, I struggled with my chopsticks through the first two, then abandoned them for my much more dexterous fingers. Made daily, the dumpling dough was light and soft, with crispy edges from the pan frying. This is one of those simple dishes that can turn utterly leaden and often does. But Stone Bowl’s home-made version is exceptional. Once I finished inhaling the dumplings, I turned my attention to the daily soup, which was soy bean sprout with scallions. All of Stone Bowl’s daily soups are a vegetable based clear broth. I particularly liked the soy bean sprouts which had a wonderful texture and made me feel virtuous after my inhalation of the dumplings.
Bibam Bab, another Korean staple, is very similar to the stone bowl, but is typically served at lunch time. Instead of being served piping hot, it comes more at room temperature. Koreans view breakfast and dinner as more substantial meals, with lunch being lighter in fare. And no matter what you choose, the Korean table is not complete without an array of condiments which are designed for the table. “Korean food is all about sharing,” said Jason.
Small white dishes of kimchee (the traditional Korean condiment made from fermented cabbage), a delightful cucumber/onion salad, diced potato in a honey sauce and a fruit salad came to table. These sides vary daily but you can count on kimchee in some form or fashion all the time. As I watched diners around us who clearly knew their way around a chopstick, it was clear that they understood that each condiment provided a different flavor impact on the main course.
Asheville has an extremely small Korean population, approximately 500 or so. On both visits, at least half of the restaurant was comprised of Asian heritage, all who seemed to feel right at home. Jason assured me that 80 percent of Stone Bowl’s customers, however, have no experience with Korean food and the staff is more than happy to guide neophytes through the menu. There is an intriguing selection of “Chef Specials” which the Korean Chef insisted be included, as they are his specialty and feature interesting focal points…monkfish, pork belly and silver cod among them.
Open since early this year, Stone Bowl is a tranquil restaurant that appeals both to those who know their kimchee as well as those who don’t. A woman sitting next to me confided, “My boyfriend is Korean and his mother considers herself an excellent cook. I’d never tell her, but this puts her to shame.” Good call; some things are best left unsaid. In culinary terms, it is becoming more and more of a small world, and this little offering from “the land of the morning calm” is a welcome addition to our little corner of the globe.