A 16-month hiatus that ended last winter had little impact on this campus-area favorite with a large, well-executed menu of Korean classics
Despite its name, Japanese Oriental Restaurant is primarily a Korean eatery — one of the oldest Korean eateries in town. Perhaps the outdated moniker stems from the fact that this 1980s-vintage, campus-area classic premiered long before now-fashionable Korean food became well-known in Columbus, and the restaurant’s current owners, who bought it about 15 years ago, aren’t about to mess with success.
On a more recent note, the place’s many fans had to wait out a 16-month hiatus prompted by intense nearby construction. That interruption ended last winter and, as visits this month bore out, it’s like the temporary shutdown never happened.
The little restaurant still occupies the same quaint old house, so it’s retained its eccentric layout. The tables, flooring, wall paneling and small sushi bar are still made of light-colored wood. The mood inside hasn’t changed, either. It’s very casual, if generally upbeat and accommodating. And the food continues to be pretty darn good, if occasionally pricey.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Loads of photographs can help lessen the burden of poring over the restaurant’s enormous menu. So can soju ($15 for 375 milliliters), a big bottle of Sapporo beer ($8 for 20 ounces) or some good and properly chilled junmai sake ($6 for about six ounces).
A few new food specials are advertised and, in keeping with the eatery’s reputation as a prime campus location for sushi, several star raw fish. Among these, the pretty Poke Appetizer ($10) — a salad with daikon threads, avocado, microgreens, cucumber, an edible flower, plus clean-flavored cubes of tuna, salmon and whitefish — tastes as good as it looks.
Several popular Japanese dishes dot the menu, including a crowd-pleasing rendition of Katsu Don ($15). Served with good miso soup, it’s a boatload of rice flavored with sweetened soy sauce and topped by a massive-but-tender chicken (or pork) cutlet, beaten egg and sauteed onions. Everything else I tried was from the expansive selection of Korean classics.
Although listed as an appetizer, the fun to eat Duk Bok Ki ($8) could be an entree, if you’d enjoy a hefty bowl of glutinous, Korean-style rice cakes, veggies (zucchini, carrots, kimchi) and fish-cake slivers swamped in a fiery, chili-paste-based sauce.
Fans of Bulgogi won’t find many better versions — or more expensive ones ($18) — than the veggie-enhanced entree served here. As per tradition, the big platter of succulent, irresistibly sweet-and-salty beef curls comes with banchan.
Japanese Oriental’s refillable banchan are pleasant, if unremarkable, small plates that might include vinegary kimchi, broccoli in a spicy sauce, a light cabbage salad, cucumber half-moons slathered in chili sauce and potatoes drenched in a sweetened soy glaze.
Expect banchan to accompany all Korean entrees, such as the restaurant’s commendable presentations of various dolsot bibimbap options: sizzling rice-based dishes served in a stone pot so hot it will enticingly crisp the rice — which should be left alone for a few minutes to achieve the desired crunchy texture. Like all of the variations, Japanese Oriental’s Vegetarian Dol Sot ($14) — topped with soft tofu, spinach, romaine lettuce, sprouts and carrots — should be generously doused with the provided gochujang-based sauce.
One of my favorite items here is also one of the restaurant’s better bargains: Jam Bong ($14), a huge bowl of noodle-and-seafood soup. Pleasantly firm noodles join mussels, octopus, cuttlefish, squid, shrimp, kimchi, green peppers, carrots, mushrooms, onions, zucchini and baby corn in a spicy — but not fiery — orange broth with sweet and smoky notes. Like this tried and true old restaurant, the dish is a gift that keeps on giving.