There is exactly one - count 'em, one - restaurant in Columbus where you can get your crazy-fun Korean-style barbecue on (that I'm aware of).
For the uninitiated, Korean barbecue is the ultimate play-with-your-food eating experience wherein you perform some of your own cooking. To do this, you must sit at a special table equipped with a nifty smoke-free grill in its middle. This results in an action-packed sort of indoor-cookout game that turns into a delicious dinner. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.
Kaya on Reed Road might highlight Korean barbecue - and that DIY style of dining is certainly quite popular here - but you needn't pay restaurant prices only to be forced into doing the cooking. That's because Kaya is also a fully functioning regulation Korean restaurant - and a good one.
Pleasant but not fancy, Kaya is an open, bright and modern eatery with a nice sushi bar. In here, American top-40 music can be heard from the likes of Lady Gaga and Kings of Leon. But the food is strictly Asian, ordered off one of those large menus that touches on noodle dishes, stir-fries, bentos and so on.
Appetizer-wise, I was a big fan of the delicate and delectable, not-quite-sushi dish called Maguro Tataki ($9). Six little fanned-out slabs of ultra-fresh tuna were seared on their exterior but otherwise a pretty, raw pink. Sprinkled on top were toasted sesame seeds and glistening orange tobiko (flying fish roe) tinted similarly to a side of orange-flavored ponzu sauce.
When eaten together with the plate's other elements - long threads of daikon radish plus pickled ginger and wasabi - it was a texture and flavor fest that would please both sushi eschewers and sushi lovers alike.
Since Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap is a classic Korean rice dish and a crowd-pleasing, gateway entree to the cuisine in general, I often check it out at Korean restaurants. Kaya's ($12) was top-notch. Colorful and dynamic, it was packed with more add-ons than many other local versions.
In other words, Kaya's was beefier, had more spinach and shiitake flavor and was served with a stir-in-yourself raw egg that rapidly cooked in its rice-crisping, volcanically hot stone pot.
Gurgling-hot spicy pots of soup are another Korean favorite, and Kaya's codfish Mae-un Tang ($14) was a good rendition thereof. Bobbing in a spicy red chili broth brought to bubbling by a sterno cup (with a snuffing-out lid) were jalapeno rings, silken tofu chunks, noodle-like bean sprouts, fresh sprigs of parsley, sliced thin mochi-like dumpling bits and hacked-up skin-on and bone-in codfish steaks. The textures and heat - both thermal and botanical - made it a riot to eat.
As for the barbecue, prior to being seated, you must request one of those aforementioned special tables (the best are highly polished wooden six-seaters tucked away in their own niches). And you must order at least two entrees from the menu's Korean BBQ section - this will feed at least three people.
You will then receive a ton of small, boldly flavored, sharable dishes (banchan) plus your preseasoned, raw proteins. Your server will then give you a how-to primer (if needed) and get the show going. If you're a novice like me, you'll mostly just be helping your server tong-flip the searing meats.
Sure, it can be a bit like a three-ring circus, but if you relax and get into the rhythms of the experience, it'll be a lot of fun.
Right on "Q"
Tips on some of Kaya's Korean barbecue options. Note: Most of these meats will be eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with fun add-ons, as your server will show you.
Pork belly ($19): Like strips of unsmoked bacon, it's the easiest to prepare because overcooking isn't an issue - it's good eaten crispy.
Chicken ($19): Simply seasoned and delicious with a good - but very quick - sear.
Bulgogi ($19): The teriyaki-like marinade lends these beef curls an appealing sweetness, but remove from the grill immediately after they lose their raw color.
Kalbi ($25): These kabob-like beef short ribs had the deepest flavor and were the meatiest, but were also the hardest to cook without becoming chewy. (These last three meats are available in a recommended bbq combo for $26)