In a city with a proportionally high number of Korean restaurants, SuRa Korean Cuisine in Mason has plenty of stiff competition. It doesn’t offer the most authentic eating experience – like Riverside Korean Restaurant in Covington – or the quickest and cheapest food – like the Red Sesame Korean BBQ food truck – and it doesn’t have the chicest atmosphere – like Sung Korean Bistro downtown.
Although it might not stand out in any one of these categories, SuRa has it all. Its expansive menu covers everything you would expect from an authentic Korean eatery – bibimbap (mixed rice bowls), tang (Korean soup), barbeque spare ribs and of course a great selection of banchan (side dishes) – its ambience is quiet and inviting, the prices are reasonable and all of the high quality food is exceptionally well prepared.
On the evening of Friday, August 26, my wife and I headed up I-71 to the White Blossom Shopping Center in Mason to indulge in one of our favorite cuisines from what we both agree is the best Korean restaurant in the Cincinnati region. The balance between spicy, umami and sweet, coupled with the unique selection of pickled and fermented foods, makes Korean cuisine unlike any other. Also, it’s commonly regarded as one of the world’s healthiest cuisines, so it’s both delicious for your taste buds and good for your body.
One of the first things you’ll likely notice upon entering SuRa is the raised dining area along the back left wall of the restaurant. Reminiscent of the separate floor eating spaces often found at traditional Japanese and Korean restaurants, this raised dining area containing four tables sits under a rustic pergola-like structure with woven mat blinds half unrolled to make you feel as if you’re eating in your own personal booth. I highly recommend sitting at one of these quaint tables to boost the atmosphere of your dining experience.
Although my wife and I decided to stick to water for our dinner, we have tried both soju and green tea from SuRa in the past. If you’re a connoisseur of fine liquors or have a penchant for vodka or grappa, I suggest trying a bottle of Korea’s unofficial national drink: soju. Distilled from rice – unlike Japanese sake which is brewed from fermented rice – soju has a very clean taste and an alcohol content of around 20-25% ABV. As a result, it makes an excellent accompaniment to the strong flavors of the food without numbing your taste buds in the process.
Both of our meals came with house-made miso soup, so we had a light first course preceding our appetizer and entrées. The soup had a great depth of flavor, and it was evident that SuRa uses a homemade kombu dashi for the stock. There were small pieces of kelp and tofu in the soup, and the broth had the deep brown and cloudy look you expect from high quality miso. It was light yet had a hearty taste, and it made a great palate cleanser to begin our meal.
For an appetizer, we decided to try the squid kimbap, one of SuRa’s variations of this iconic Korean snack. Similar to and inspired by sushi, kimbap (김밥) is a seaweed roll containing rice, pickled daikon radish, cucumbers, spinach and a protein – usually pork. Unlike sushi, however, kimbap is larger, includes a wider variety of ingredients and has a much broader flavor profile. The squid kimbap at SuRa – one of four options you can choose from – includes highly seasoned cooked squid slices, a spicy mayo dipping sauce and purple rice. It made an excellent start to the meal and was packed with deliciously bold flavors.
When it came to choosing our entrées, I went with my longtime favorite – osam bulgogi (오삼불고기) – and my wife opted for a something new – janchi guksu (잔치국수) – in lieu of her old standby, jjajangmyon (짜장면) – a noodle dish with a decadent black bean paste. The janchi guksu – which is also referred to as Korean wedding noodle soup – included long buckwheat noodles, small cuts of beef, strips of fried egg, carrots, kale and a hearty beef broth. Although the dish isn’t listed on the restaurant’s website, I recommend giving it a second look on the in-house menu, especially if you’re a fan of rich, warming and savory soups.
I’ve had osam bulgogi at a few Korean restaurants, and no one does it quite as well as SuRa. This dish is comprised of squid and pork belly – osam is a shortened version of the Korean words for these two proteins – a medley of vegetables and the namesake red pepper paste, bulgogi. While the squid is tender and the pork belly succulently fatty and delightfully crisped, the bulgogi sauce brings everything together and makes this dish a remarkable gastronomic accomplishment. It is one of my favorite dishes from any restaurant, and the sweet, smoky and spicy sauce leaves me craving bite after bite.
Any review of a Korean restaurant wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of its banchan. Banchan are Korean side dishes and condiments that are served alongside of a meal. SuRa offers a changing selection of five items, which means that each time you visit you’ll be able to experience new flavors. On tonight’s menu, there was the perennial staple kimchi as well as julienned pickled radish, tofu pieces in soy sauce, cucumbers and sweet marinated tofu strips. For anyone new to Korean dining, these items are meant to be eaten with your meal, so feel free to add them to bites of your entrée or simply snack on them as you enjoy your main dish.
Our meal was spectacular, and we both left with our bellies stuffed. Usually we have to take to-go boxes because the portions are quite large, but this time we finished everything. With a tip, the meal cost around $48, which is a steal for so much delicious food and imported ingredients. Overall, SuRa Korean Cuisine is well worth the drive out to the suburbs, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy its wide selection of unique and wonderfully crafted items as we always do.