A Korean restaurant is the last place I expected to be reminded of my Alabama-born-and-raised ex-mother-in-law, yet Kimbap did.
Kimbap, which recently opened in Raleigh's Seaboard Marketplace, is a tiny space. Be prepared to wait if you go on a weekend night. An L-shaped wooden counter runs around the kitchen area, and if you sit there you'll be able to watch slicing, dicing and stirring. The feel is more modern than you might expect, thanks to the minimalist décor and touches such as stainless steel chopsticks.
The menu is also relatively small, but daily specials focus on ingredients from North Carolina farms and vendors, a list of which can be found on the restaurant's website.
One of the more enjoyable dishes is the Korean taco, the special on Taco Tuesday. A soft wrap is stuffed with bulgogi (thinly sliced meat) and mildly spicy pickled jicama and greens. You can also opt to replace the bulgogi with tofu if you prefer to go meatless. Add a side of kimchi and you have a meal. If you happen to receive a banchan (think amuse-bouche with a Korean accent) of three small side dishes, then it is especially satisfying. My banchan consisted of kimchi, sesame greens and a spicy combination of pickled carrot, red pepper and more.
Mandu, or dumplings, is available on both the lunch and dinner menus and is another dish that Kimbap does well. The dumplings are made from scratch, and you can get them stuffed with either veggies or pork and ginger. I had the latter and was only halfway through before contemplating when I could return and order them again. The pork and ginger complement each other perfectly while the dumplings are soft little pillows with an occasional bit of crunch from browning during cooking. My only quibble with the dish is that it is served with two small dabs of hot sauce artfully placed on the plate. It looks nice but the sauce is not nearly potent enough to be meted out in such a small amount.
Not everything that makes it to the table is a hit. A side of rice cakes, a special one evening, looked enticing. The cakes are fingerling-shaped and coated with a red sauce. Unfortunately, biting into the cakes reveals that the dish has more style than taste. They are extremely bland. The sesame greens also deliver less flavor than desired.
Dessert is seldom worth bothering with in most Korean restaurants, but toss that preconception aside at Kimbap. This is why my former mother-in-law came to mind. She would make a coconut cake that could make you forget any mother-in-law jokes you might know. Kimbap has a coconut cake that reminded me of hers. (Actually, just between you and me, it was better.) It—and most of the other desserts on the menu—comes from Sweet T, a local cakery. Another worthy dessert choice—this one in-law free—is the Meyer Lemon Cheesecake, which has a layer of lemon nestled atop the creamy cheesecake portion.
Owned by Kim Hunter, of Sarah Cecilia's Good Food Co., Kimbap has a promising future. It already does several things quite well and, as it settles in, it will likely only get better.