This new high-concept eatery serving fixed-price adult beverages and mostly pretty good Japanese and Korean food can provide adventurous diners with a fun, but sometimes chaotic, evening
Noren 9 is one of the most unusual restaurants I've eaten in lately. What makes it unusual can lead to a meal that's adventurous and fun, but also chaotic and pricey.
It's not that Noren's fare is unusual. It's mostly solid and sometimes quite good Korean and Japanese food. Located in a Polaris-area strip mall, Noren isn't particularly unusual looking, either. It's a spacious, relatively comfortable place with red-and-green padded booths, an attention-grabbing mural depicting samurai warriors and a few other Japanese-style adornments.
No, what primarily makes this new restaurant so unusual is menu offerings influenced by — but hardly faithful to — Japanese kaiseki (tasting menu) and nomihodai izakaya dining (tapas-like dishes paired with unlimited fixed-price drinks).
Breaking this down to numbers: Every dinner entree at Noren costs $25.99, a hefty amount that accounts for nine accompanying items not selected by customers. Adult diners (hopefully none foolhardy enough to drive afterward) can order all-you-can-drink beverages for one price on weeknights: soju on Mondays ($15), draft beer on Tuesdays ($10), wines on Wednesdays ($13) and sake on Thursdays ($14).
The more-interesting side dishes — there's no shortage of these — make dining at Noren like eating at an entertaining party. But because some dishes seem like afterthoughts (fish sticks come to mind) and the panoply of plates tend to arrive in hard-to-navigate bunches, and because the well-intentioned servers aren't always well-versed in what they're serving — expect all of this — it can lead to a shambolic evening, too.
Noren's nine entree accompaniments vary nightly, but exhibited some consistency. On every visit, I was served alluring banchan-like fare such as a delightfully spicy-and-sweet shredded surimi salad, a gingery and refreshing octopus salad, a flavorful block of marinated tofu and delicious though oily japchae. Likewise included: a little skillet with an irresistible corn-and-cheese casserole, plus a choice of two good soups — udon with nori strips (and sometimes spicy togarashi powder) or cuts-above miso soup with ramen noodles, scallions and a softly cooked egg with a creamy yolk.
Every meal came with a metal grate, too, bearing small-but-flavorful skewered things that ranged from grilled meats — chicken, steak, sausage — to one roasted garlic clove. The grates also contained rather oily fried items such as routine gyoza, crispy mini Korean pancakes (with a single shrimp on one occasion) and, well, fish sticks.
Two sure bets among the sizable entrees I sampled (which generally feed one hearty eater or two light appetites) are the excellent Gangnam Bulgogi and the deep-fried K-Pop Chicken Gangjeong — a hacked-up half-bird served with pickled daikon and featuring juicy meat beneath a thick-and-crunchy crust livened by a sweet, soy-based glaze.
The Crazy Maeun Galbi Jjim is easy to like but hard to eat. That's because the star of this terrific tasting, spicy-and-sweet rustic stew with potatoes, carrots, translucent onions and greens is gnarly pork ribs fraught with fat and cartilage.
I also enjoyed the flavors of the good-looking “LA Galbi” — bone-in beef short rib slices served fajita-style with mushrooms, onions and asparagus. Too bad the meat was chewy.
And too bad the shrimp tasted very iodine-y in the otherwise enjoyable, sukiyaki-like “Osaka Mille Feuille Nabe Broth.” This healthful hot-pot dish, which cooks tableside, is packed with napa cabbage, plus enoki and shimeji mushrooms, and includes a few slices of roast-beef-flavored meat and shrimp. An anticipated pleasure of such an entree — its ever-developing, light-but-lively broth — was diminished by unappealing iodine notes.
The amusing Taiyaki — a commercially produced enormous ice cream cone built like a fish-shaped cake — guarantees you'll finish with a smile. And it might be free if, like me, you must earlier convince a server you were presented with an incorrect entree.