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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Bear hugs: Bear Korean owners Song Ae Ko and Chong Su Ko.


Kimchee Kitchen

Cotati's Bear Korean satisfies a taste for the exotic

By Paula Harris

THE FIRST THING we notice about the Bear Korean Restaurant in Cotati isn't the vaguely seafood fragrance in the air, or the simple tables covered with bowls of presumably exotic fare, or even the pretty illuminated aquarium decorating the front of the plain lunchroom--it's the Korean karaoke.

The would-be songfest is in the form of a video blaring garishly from a color TV set elevated to deity status up in the corner. This karaoke video is unsettlingly entrancing. We have menus before us, but still can't tear our eyes away from the poised and posed Asian couples modeling the story lines of unfamiliar songs, while the bouncing ball skips along over the lyrics--shown in Korean characters. The canned music plinky-plinks along relentlessly from one tune to the next. It's like being trapped in an elevator.

Still, some customers seem to be enjoying the entertainment, gazing up at the screen while they raise chopsticks and small teacups to their mouths. In the past few months, since the restaurant opened, Bear Korean has attracted quite a following of regular clients (Korean and otherwise), all drawn to its exotic home cooking and tasty take outs.

The informal dining room is plain, clean, and comfortable, with a brown-and-white linoleum floor, pale gray walls with minimal art work (plus a few photos of family or maybe they're clients). There are various sports trophies on a couple of shelves near the cash register. You can peek into the partly open kitchen, which is framed by lace curtains, and see what appears to be three multigenerational members of a family busy at work over the sizzling stoves and grills.

OUR SERVER is a rather quizzical fellow who seems to take a perverse delight in being flummoxed by non-Korean-speaking clients' questions about the menu (a couple of items have absolutely no explanation of their content). He brings us cups of tea. The brew surprisingly is served cold (maybe to quench the spiciness of some of the food) and has a refreshing corn and barley flavor. He also brings us a dish containing a cluster of pungent white shreds--dried squid. The taste is fishlike, but the texture is dry and chewy.

There's no wine on the menu, but there are bottles of OB--a light-bodied lager brewed in Seoul. It complements the food very well.

The server makes quite a production of bringing out nine small plates of various condiments and lining them up along the table. These are the panch'an--the various side dishes brought out at the beginning of a Korean meal. Our side dishes tonight include radish prepared two ways (spicy and sweetish); a mouth-scorching leek-based kimchee; cold spinach; mashed potato salad with apples; mung bean sprouts; yellow squash; and opalescent, slightly salty Korean bean cake. There's also, of course, the standard kimchee of fermented cabbage in fiery chili marinade, the hallowed Korean dish (and everyone has his or her own secret recipe) that is said to have magical properties. Indeed, kimchee experts claim the taste comes from the fingertips of the maker.

All in all, quite an array of tastes and textures.

A GREAT BARGAIN is the jin man du ($4.25), the steamed wonton appetizer. We are surprised by the quantity: 10 fat little dumplings resting on a cabbage leaf on a steamer shelf. The parcels are crammed with minced pork and vegetables.

The rice omelet ($6.95) is an enormous roll resembling a burrito. But instead of a tortilla, the outer wrapper is a pale gold omelet curled around a tasty filling of vegetable fried rice. The whole thing, which has a kind of egg foo yung flavor, is draped with a thick brown sauce that tastes a bit like tamarind.

Another dish, japchae ($8.95), is a heaping salad of translucent slim buckwheat noodles dressed in sesame oil and chili sauce and containing various veggies like raw cucumber and carrot. It's an unusual hot-cool flavor combo that's very satisfying.

When the server brings me pork bul go ki ($10.95), Korean-style barbecue pork--instead of the pork gal bi ($11.95), the barbecue pork ribs that I'd ordered--I decide to just go along with it. This is another large portion (served with steamed white rice), featuring slices of meat and sliced fried onions sizzling on a hot metal plate. The charcoaly, slightly spiced pork is well flavored, but, disappointingly, rather tough.

Next time I'll be sure to try the ribs.

There are no desserts at Bear Korean, but the server grins and brings us each a stick of Korean Haitai melon-flavored chewing gum in a fuschia pink wrapper to finish off the meal. As we leave, masticating furiously on the fruity adhesive, the karaoke video starts back up, finally playing something we recognize: "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."

We beat a hasty retreat. But we'll be back!


Bear Korean Restaurant
8577 Gravenstein Hwy., Cotati; 794-9828
Hours: Daily, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Food: Korean
Service: Friendly, though not very helpful
Ambiance: Informal and comfortable
Price: Inexpensive to moderate
Wine List: No wine available
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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