Woo Lae Oak has a plain unprepossessing exterior. That impression does not change as one goes down a few steps from the street and enters the restaurant.The long narrow room is divided in two by a floor to ceiling divider with glass shelves on which lie beautifully lacquered boxes containing ( I presume) the personalized chopsticks of regular customers. There is not much else in the way of ornamentation and I can’t remember anything of note. In the front half of the room , the kitchen is situated along the left wall behind a long counter. Along the right wall is the seating where diners can watch their food being prepared. In the back half are the restrooms and more tables.
The menu listed some interesting appetizers. Two that caught our eye were Dungeness Crab & leek wrapped in spinach leaves and a Filet of Sole stuffed with green chilli pepper in almond flour tempura. However we were mindful that Korean meals are preceeded by a complimentary array of side dishes (banchan). Not wanting to stuff ourselves and find ourselves too full for the entrees, we regretfully decided to pass on the appetizers.We had barely begun to sip our cold sakes when the banchan arrived. They were comparatively few in number. There was a bowl of romaine lettuce leavesdrizzled with an excellent vinaigrette of kimchee juice, sesame oil, sugar and (perhaps) a dash of rice vinegar. You home cooks might want to try this out; I intend to. There were also small dishes of sauteed spinach, pickled radish, pickled cucumber and kimchee. Unlike other Korean restaurants thatwe have been to, the kimchee had been toned down by adding a little sugar. Generally I am a traditionalist and believe in foods being served the way they are in their countries of origin but , in this case, I liked the innovation. I find the taste of regular kimchee a little too sharp; here it had a more rounded flavor.
We ordered the rest of the meal and settled back to watch it being prepared. Here, as at most restaurants, the line cooks were all Mexican. I am no longer surprised by this as Anthony Bourdain remarked on it in one of his early books. Mexicans , particularly from the area around Puebla , are talented cooks and they work hard for comparatively little money.
We started out with small bowls of spinach miso soup laced with kimchee juice, good but overly salty. Since we were a party of seven we were able to sample dishes from different sections of the menu. From the BBQ section we had the thinly sliced rib-eye of beef ( bul gogi) and the spicy pork tenderloin (dae ji). As usual, we had them cooked and served rather than cooking them at the table. It makes for a less cluttered table. In the middle of winter, barbecueing at the table is nice and warming ;in summer it’s not a good idea.
I am going to omit the Korean names and give only the English equivalents for the rest of the dishes.From the traditional dishes we chose a meltingly tender Black Cod in a Spicy Soy Sauce – Garlic Reduction. From the rice dishes we had Fried rice flavored with kimchi juice and a Korean staple, Bi bim bap, rice cooked in a heated stone bowl so that the bottom is crispy.Rice dishes come with a choice of vegetables, chicken or beef.
Desserts are not made on the premises but are obtained from a neighboring establishment. The chocolate mousse , tiramisu and Harmony( icecream in phyllo pastry drizzled with raspberry sauce)were all good but the assorted creme brulees and the icecreams were a disappointment.
Overall, I would rate Woo Lae Oak as pricey but good, or rather good but pricey. Average prices are as follows: Small soup ( $ 6) , appetizers ( $12), barbecue dishes ( $20- $22 ), Traditional dishes ( $25), Rice dishes ( $14-$16) and desserts( $9). Dinner for two will run you about $ 80-$100 including tax and tip, excluding drinks.
P.S Next time I go to Woo Lae Oak, if I do, I might forego the main dishes and order more appetizers. As at many other restaurants, the appetizers are more attractive than the main dishes.