Dish: Ja-Jang Noodles
Place: Red Lantern, International District, Seattle
In the bowl: Fresh Korean wheat noodles (thick spaghetti size) with a julienned cucumber garnish.
Supporting cast: A second bowl contains fermented black bean paste, beef, shrimp, squid, onions, and zucchini. And a side dish with pickled daikon slices, raw onion pieces, and plum paste.
What to do: Pour and mix the small bowl into the big bowl, but not the daikon, onions, and plum paste. While it made sense to me that daikon was a pickle on the side, I wasn't sure what to do about the onions. Only after asking did the server explain that they are also meant to be eaten on the side, simply saying "The plum paste takes away the sharpness of the onion."Noodling around: Red Lantern's website says that the restaurant specializes in "contemporary Northern Chinese-Korean cooking with influences from neighboring Asian specialties without compromising authenticity or taste."
This might explain why the ja-jang noodles were different than the "zha-jiang mian" (fried sauce noodles) I'm accustomed to eating. Those noodles tend to be topped by ground pork stir-fried with fermented soybean paste (the zha-jiang), with julienned cucumber atop that. The intense black color was familiar, but Red Lantern's Korean-influenced (northern Chinese, apparently) version added seafood to beef (interesting, though I ultimately prefer pure pork) and zucchini (also interesting, but it overlapped too much with the cucumber for me).
The dish has a deep, earthy taste, just as you might expect from something this dark. I did enjoy the slices of pickled daikon to provide an acidic and refreshing crunch to counter the noodle sauce, but I never got quite comfortable with the onions.
If still hungry: Perhaps try one of the tea-influenced desserts: either the crème brulee cream infused with black tea and caramelized sugar, or the red-tea tiramisu with mascarpone cheese, red tea, and brandy (both $4.95).
Be aware/beware: I am happy to see a new restaurant in the International District, and hope others will follow suit. And while I appreciate the mission to combine the culinary traditions of China and Korea, the menu seems to be all over the map, busting borders in being pan-Asian. A little focus would help Red Lantern establish a firmer identity.