The spin-off of Japanese Oriental Restaurant does a similarly solid job with classic Korean and Japanese dishes, but offers more room and creature comforts
In Japan, “bonsai” means “tray-planting,” and generally refers to an ornamental tree created by growing and pruning an ordinary tree confined inside a container to dwarf it. In Upper Arlington, Bonsai means a delightful, uncommonly approachable, new, Korean-leaning restaurant.
The eatery's full name is Bonsai Japanese & Korean Bistro, and its menu will be familiar to the numerous fans of Bonsai's forebear, the long-running, recently shuttered (but planning-to-return) Japanese Oriental Restaurant.
Unlike its University District precursor, Bonsai, which has assumed the quarters of defunct Tot Vietnamnoms, is roomy, modern and comfortable. It's handsome, too.
“K-pop” music often plays in the pleasant space, which offers clean lines and walls painted white and seafoam green. Tasteful paintings and decorations — which include bonsai trees — add panache to simple blond wooden tables with black chairs and a matching sushi bar.
The English-speaker-friendly menu might seem dishearteningly large, but many of its selections are permutations of basic dishes, most of which are nicely prepared. A good beginning to a meal here is with a classic from the Japanese canon, such as the Sashimi Appetizer ($9.95).
Attractively presented on a platter with the expected garnishes (shredded daikon, wasabi paste, pickled ginger), plus a decorative plastic bonsai, it's two sizable slabs each of chilled, raw and very clean-tasting tuna, salmon and whitefish.
The Vegetable Tempura ($6.95) is another worthwhile, time-tested, shareable starter. A puffy, light, crisp, not overly oily batter encases bits of zucchini, green pepper, broccoli and sweet potato.
Although listed as an appetizer, the hefty Seafood Pancake ($13.95) could be dinner for two. Bonsai's solidly executed rendition of the popular dish — Korea's answer to the frittata — is fairly crisp and lightly studded with shrimp (both tiny and medium-sized), squid, cuttlefish, little mussels, surimi strands and scallion. Unlike countless versions I've sampled in local Korean eateries, the seafood isn't overcooked.
Bonsai outpaces the Bulgogi sold at many other places, too. Its slightly smoky version of the famous sweet-and-salty beef entree is commendably tender and, in addition to the usual onions, includes a veggie bonus of sauteed zucchini, carrots, greens and peppers.
This is available in a substantial half-portion — served only with rice — that's regularly $12.95 but just $8 if ordered from the supplemental menu offered Monday through Friday. A full portion ($17.95) includes unlimited side dishes (banchan) that have been above average.
Banchan accompany most of Bonsai's entrees, such as its Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap ($14.95). The celebrated rice dish is properly presented in a stone pot so hot it forms an enticing crust on the bottom of the rice pile. On top is a frizzled egg, bulgogi and a veggie medley. The straightforward combo — it's meant to be all mixed together — is good, if overly dependent on a side of chili sauce for seasoning.
The seasonally apt Soon Doo Boo Stew ($12.95) is as much fun to slurp as it is to say. One of those Korean soups that arrives literally gurgling-hot, it features a mildly spicy chili broth with a background sweetness. Populating this are tiny shrimp, little mussels, pork belly, tender calamari rings, soft tofu, dropped egg and vegetables.
“Tofu Jim” sounds like a proselytizer for bean curd. Here, it's yet another pleasing, if hardly world-shaking, dish ($14.95): a spicy, smoky and saucy stir fry with crispy tofu, veggies, plus a chosen protein — I went with tender chicken strips.
This would pair great with beer, and alcohol service is ostensibly imminent (the final kinks for a liquor permit are being ironed out). Along with the creative wheels of nouveau futomaki I was gifted on my last visit, the forthcoming enhanced drink selection suggests that, unlike its namesake, this Bonsai has potential for growth.