By now most of you probably know how much I love pork and duck, but there is another side to me. A fishier side. Growing up, I actually preferred seafood over red meat. I was a weird kid, and unlike my brother who loved Big Macs and galbi (갈비, Korean beef ribs), I loved vegetables, ice cold naeng myun (냉면, cold buckwheat noodles), and hwe (회, Korean-style raw fish). (By the way, I believe this is one of the reasons I’m vertically challenged and my brother is not, lack of good ole’ American beef. Alas, I’m sure my childhood fondness for coffee and jumping from great heights also played a part.) So a few weeks ago, when Hannah (my sister-in-law) told me Yuraku, her mom’s restaurant in Flushing, started serving “live fish” flown in straight from Korea, I knew a trip to Queens was in my not-so-distant future.
When Hannah’s mother, Mrs. Cho, took over Yuraku years ago, it was strictly a Japanese restaurant. But slowly, as the clientele started the reflect the neighborhood’s large Korean community, she started adding Korean dishes to the menu. A smart move, in my opinion, especially in regards to the most recent addition. Sashimi is fine and dandy, but Koreans aren’t too fond of eating fish that’s been sitting in the refrigerator, even if has only been a day or two. Hannah told me when her uncle came to visit from Korea, he was shocked to discover that in America, people eat “dead fish.” Koreans want fish to swim right onto their plates, and at Yuraku, that’s pretty damn close to what happens.
A whole live fluke is $150, but considering all the extras a live fish set comes with, a half order at $80 was more than plenty for the four fish-eating members in our group. [My brother, who doesn't like fish, happily made do with some tonkatsu (Japanese pork cutlet).] And for those cynics and curmudgeons who’ll say we got more food because of my SIL, according to Mrs. Cho, everyone who comes and orders the live fish goes home with leftovers. There’s a lot of food regardless.
The meal started with lots of small complimentary plates, definitely more than necessary, and more than I could photograph. Above, starting clockwise from the top-left, are the few dishes I took pictures of: kombucha squash with jujubes, edamame beans, pickled onions, wakame (seaweed) salad, abalone jook (죽, porridge), and cheesy corn. Not pictured, but included, was also a large plate of shrimp and vegetable tempura, fried tofu, and a hot stone pot of steamed skate (홍어찜, honguhjjim). Everything was good, but none worth filling up on, except perhaps the spicy garlicky skate. Like free bread at an Italian restaurant, at Yuraku you have to practice restraint and keep your eyes on the prize.
The prize, of course, is the fluke, but just as good if not better, were the raw sea cucumbers and sea squirts that came with the fluke. The sea cucumbers, although not “live,” were super fresh and almost crunchy to the bite. (Sea cucumbers when not fresh will be soft with no considerable snap.) I’m a big fan of raw sea cucumbers.
I’m also a big fan of sea squirts. Sea squirts have the texture of raw oysters, but with a bit more chew. At Yuraku, the sea squirts were briney and delicious.
The sea cucumbers and sea squirts were accompanied with chogochujang (초고추장, a vinegary sauce made with red pepper paste) for dipping, but both fresh and flavorful, only the tiniest dab for heat was needed.
For those squeamish about sea cucumbers and sea squirts, Yuraku can do a substitution of salmon on request, but really, I rather eat either over salmon any day.
And finally, the pièce de résistance, the fluke. Killed as soon as we placed the order, the fish tasted fresh, clean, and had just the right amount of firmness. Fresh fish shouldn’t be mushy. We finished every last bite. The fish didn’t die for naught.
After the fluke, there was more fish to come. Compliments of the chef, we received a small vinegary salad of sorts made with julienned cucumbers, crab sticks, and monkfish skin. I’m not crazy about crab sticks, but the crunchy cucumbers went nicely with the chewy monkfish skin. It was simple and lovely.
The meal of hwe, in true Korean fashion, ended with a hot bubbling stone pot of soul-satisfying maeuntang (매운탕, spicy fish soup), in this case agumaeuntang (아구매운탕, spicy monkfish soup), and rice. The soup, filled with monkfish, was rich with flavor but bright from the peppers and garlic.
As for the rice, it was in the form of albab (알밥, rice with flying fish roe) in small individual-size stone bowls. However, on the brink of explosion, and loving the maeuntang, I decided to forgo the rice for more soup. That’s how I roll.
Flushing is a small trek for me, but for the sea cucumbers, sea squirts, live fluke, and maeuntang, I’ll gladly go the distance. After all, it’s still closer than Seoul. Why not have the fish come to you?
UPDATE (9/2/2011): Yuraku has re-branded itself as International BBQ Buffet and Seafood. Sadly, it seems the neighborhood wasn’t ready for live seafood. I went tonight and the place was hoppin’. I guess all-you-can-eat buffet (including sashimi, sushi, and Korean meats for table grilling) is what makes people happy.
UPDATE (4/9/2012): Yuraku is now closed.
Yuraku Restaurant (CLOSED)
192- 20 Northern Boulevard (map)
Flushing, NY 11358