Mrs. Song, a slender, refined, tradition-minded Korean woman and the mother of my food informant Mi Ryung Song, carefully scanned the multipage menu at Hanuri, a handsome, two-year-old Korean restaurant in the inner Richmond.
From her daughter, I knew that Mrs. Song preferred more delicate flavors and was partial to the imperial tradition of Korean cooking, while her husband and Mi Ryung shared a love of hot, garlicky, chile-infused home cooking and street food.
Hanuri, with its sleek modern decor, immaculate dining rooms and seriously long menu, struck me as a place that both Mrs. Song and I would like.
After much deliberation — facilitated by a hand-held Korean-English computerized dictionary — Mrs. Song chose our meal.
Hanuri specializes in “wood charcoal” Korean barbecue. Long, communal wooden tables with benches have propane grills built into them. Smaller tables in a separate dining area are serviced by portable units.
Mrs. Song went straight for pork barbecue ($21.95), No. 5 on the separate menu card of barbecue items. Thick slices of bacon-like, fat-streaked meat arrived sizzling on a metal platter lined with thinly cut white onion. Cooked to a turn in the kitchen, the slices had crisp, blackened edges and melting flesh. With chopsticks we placed pieces in dewy lettuce leaves, dabbed on a medium-spicy fermented soybean paste, threw on some now-wilted onions and some shaved curls of white daikon radish, and then we rolled.
Memorably delicious, these impromptu packages remain for me the siren call of this restaurant.
A “chim” is a Korean braise and monkfish chim ($24.95) at Hanuri is a particularly luscious one, with tons of chopped scallion and meticulously beheaded bean sprouts that bring crunchy, juicy counterpoint to a chile-reddened gravy. A moderately hot, reasonably garlicky, and perfectly balanced flavor profile supported the meaty fish.
All dishes are shared family-style at the Korean table and these main courses came with a colorful array of small dishes spanning the flavor spectrum from mild to incendiary, fresh to pickled. Everyone at the table got his or her own bowl of soothing seaweed soup with mild pork broth, and a shiny covered metal bowl of rice.
Toasted barley-and-corn tea, with its backbone of smokiness, worked as an antidote to the garlic, chile and sesame oil in the cooking. The meal ended with a little glass bowl of chilled sweet soup with a few grains of rice at the bottom, a palate refresher — as is a stick of melon-flavored gum that can be picked up at the front desk on the way out.
On another visit without Mrs. Song, we botched the cooking of some paper-thin slices of fatty beef called chadol baegi ($21.95). They stuck to the grill. The kitchen did a fine job on codfish chigae ($13.95), though. The soupy stew had a sane, spicy chile-red broth that was light and clean, allowing the hunks of long-cooked bone-in cod to make a statement, especially with fragrant chrysanthemum greens.
Owned and operated by Chong and Howard Kim and an extended family, Hanuri is a friendly place that welcomes everyone. If you look helpless, a waitress just might come over to barbecue for you.
Hanuri is upscale enough to accommodate these desperate calls for extraservice but still low key — a good place to begin an exploration of Korean cooking.
Location: 4217 Geary Blvd. S.F.
Contact: (415) 221-5227, www.hanuribbq.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight every day
Price range: Lunch, $7.95 to $15; dinner, $21.95 to $25
Recommended dishes: No. 5 pork BBQ; monkfish chim; cod fish chigae; cold buckwheat noodles with raw skate; oyster pancakes; dumplings.
Reservations: Accepted but not necessary