Bowl'd BBQ Korean Stone Grill is the latest restaurant from the Chi Moon and Jessica Oh duo, the family behind Albany's Bowl'd Korean Rice Bar and Berkeley's Spoon Korean Bistro. The new Bowl'd is situated amid the delicious scrum of Korean restaurants in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood.
The thing that sets Bowl'd apart is, as the name suggests, the stone grill entrees: your choice of meat (steak, brisket, tuna, salmon, shrimp or pork belly, $24) grilled atop a smoking hot stone brick. Our steak stone grill was a hefty, naked slab of rib-eye that servers cooked tableside to our liking. It was undoubtedly a quality cut of beef, tender and flavorful, and was served with cabbage leaves for wrapping, garlic and jalapeños for kick, and umami-rich ssamjang (a soybean paste-based sauce) for slathering.
You also can order regular Korean barbecue ($20), cooked in the kitchen or done DIY by sizzling slices of fish or meat on a tabletop grill. For those who really want to do it up, Bowl'd also has two- or four-person barbecue combos ($49.99 and $99.99, respectively), which include substantial sides, like egg "soufflé" (steamed egg) and soft tofu stew.
But sides almost can be considered optional, given that most of the entrees come with banchan, the tempting assortment of Korean nibbles that accompany rice. Our entrees were preceded by a battalion of fifteen such dishes. And for those who measure Korean restaurants by the quality and quantity of banchan, Bowl'd holds its own. (In fact, those hankering for Bowl'd banchan and kimchee can pick up containers of the stuff at Berkeley Bowl.)
The squadrons of young, earnest waitstaff are enthusiastic. The airy modern interior, with its high ceilings and lemon and woodtone hues, is pleasing. And the diverse menu offers something for everyone, from hot pot and 10 choices of soups and stews to such non-Korean items as ahi poke and shrimp tempura.
Whether you're new to Korean cuisine or a devotee, you'll enjoy the bibimbap, with tofu, bulgogi or spicy pork belly served over white rice or mixed grains. We can never resist the dolsot bibimbap in the hot stone bowl ($14). The abundance of fresh vegetables, the tastiness of the mixed grains, the rich flavor of the salmon (a nontraditional but welcome choice), mixed with the unctuousness of egg yolk were an appealing and healthful combination.
Bowl'd does the always-popular KFC, or Korean Fried Chicken ($6), which comes four ways: regular, soy-glazed, spicy and barbecue. The well-marinated regular chicken wings had a substantial crunchy exterior, coated with a sticky, spicy-sweet sauce.
Other good choices for newbies include Korean pancakes and rice bites. We eschewed the bolder pancakes, such as oyster ($11), crab ($8) or kimchee ($8) and went with the humble mung bean version ($6), which was simple, crispy and earthy. Rice bites include kimbob, sushi roll-type appetizers with barbecue beef, Spam and other fillings ($6); and tofu pockets, which are similar to inari sushi ($5). We opted for the bacon roll ($5), four stout batons of seasoned rice wrapped in bacon, and were pleasantly surprised at the creamy, risottolike quality of the rice.
While the entrees at Bowl'd's sister restaurants generally stay under $15, Bowl'd Stone Grill offers several pricier items, such as pork belly lettuce wraps ($21) and braised short ribs ($25). The portion size on the short ribs was formidable, with large chunks of meat, potatoes, kabocha squash and other veggies making a daunting presentation. The sauce had a deep and rich flavor but was a bit sweet for our taste.
While the menu lacks focus, the diversity of choices makes Bowl'd a fitting choice for a crowd, especially when there are vegans and gluten-free diners in the mix. Their accessible preparations makes this a good entry point for novices, who might be otherwise put off by raw egg in the bibimbap, for example, or the whole anchovies, eyes and all, in a banchan plate. And for those looking to go beyond barbecue and rice bowls, they can tuck into Bowl'd on a rainy day for sujebee, a stew made with hand-torn potato pasta ($13), paired with makguli, unfiltered rice wine, for a taste of authentic Korea.
Bowl'd BBQ Korean Stone Grill
* * ½
WHERE: 4869 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
CONTACT: 510-654-2000, http://bowldbbq.com
HOURS: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
PRICES: $$ to $$$
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including rice bowls, noodles and stews
BEVERAGES: Slushies, beer and wine, soju and soju cocktails and unfiltered Korean rice wine
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Children's menu available.
PLUSES: Enthusiastic, attentive service and a wide menu makes this a good choice for groups.
MINUSES: That said, the menu lacks focus.
DATE OPENED: January
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40