Secret Garden: A Guru Review

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I finally had a chance to try out another of the city’s relatively hidden gems, which carries the very apt name Secret Garden. Secret Garden is part of a variety of local businesses owned by the Han family. Han’s Oriental Grocery is right next door to the small restaurant serving primarily authentic Korean food but also Japanese food and sushi. It’s the sort of place that caters mainly to Syracuse’s Korean population and much like Fayette Street’s Chorong House, a must-visit for the Guru. Let’s see if Secret Garden makes the grade.

I was lucky enough to try Secret Garden with my friend Mike Wong, a half-Chinese Hawaii-born transplant to the area. He’s been eating at Secret Garden regularly for a long time, knows the Han family–and most important–he really knows the food. Going into Secret Garden as an outsider isn’t so easy. While menu items have English translations, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re signing up for. You might end up cooking your own food if you pick the wrong thing, but as I found out this is not necessarily a bad thing. I suggest grabbing a knowledgeable friend to eat with if you’re unfamiliar with authentic Korean eats.

Secret Garden encompasses two major Asian cuisines. The full range of Korean specialties like Ddeok Bok Gi (steamed rice cakes) and Bi Bim Bap, a sizeable list of Japanese items, as well as affordably priced fresh sushi appear on the menu. I told Mike that I liked seafood and spiciness and that I wanted a well-rounded, authentic experience. He did the ordering and we really got a whirlwind tour of Korean food and a relatively hefty bill that wasn’t actually bad considering the sheer amount of leftovers.

Mike ordered a Chinese beer and out of habit I got some hot sake. Had I been doing it right I would have gone with the vodka-like fermented barley booze called soju, but alas I needed to drive at some point. Soon after the drinks came a plate of tuna sashimi atop a finely sliced radish bed arrived. Given Mike’s status as a regular, this complimentary item even had a sprinkling of Hawaiian sea salt that he gave the sushi chef. There were about five slices of fresh tuna and the flavor was stunning. I’d say this little precursor to the coming feast ranks among the best pieces of raw tuna I’ve had in Syracuse. I plan on a full sushi review in the coming weeks.

Looking around the somewhat busy restaurant I heard Chinese and Korean being spoken exclusively. A table of I’d say college age Koreans sat nearest to us with two large bowls of boiling soup, which I couldn’t specifically identify. Whatever it was smelled amazing and got my appetite going. Towards the back the sushi chef was putting the final touches on some beautiful looking rolls and sashimi.

It was time to order. Given my love of Korean pancakes (Pah Jeon), specifically the fantastically crispy and delicious kim-chi version at Chorong House, we went with the Hae Mool Pah Jeon or seafood pancake ($8.95). We then ordered a dinner-sized order of sliced squid with veggies stir-fried in spicy sauce also known as Oh Jing Uh Bok Geum ($15.95). Next we went with the traditional cook-it-yourself beef brisket barbecue Cha Dol Bae Gi ($18.95) and didn’t stop there. In the hopes of covering another traditional Korean favorite, Mike also asked for a small side of Ddeok Bok Gi or steamed rice cake with veggies in hot sauce ($6.95). Quite an order.

After settling in with a few shots of sake and conversation the banchan arrived. Any Korean food lover worth his salt (or MSG) knows about these several little plates that start the meal. Sweet diced radish, sweet black beans (kongjaban), an onion-based chutney, slaw, homemade kim chi, and more were included. Being a fan of kim chi I went straight for it. This kim chi is a Han family recipe that you can buy next door at Han’s Oriental Grocery. The flavors ignited a wave of delight as the spicy chile sauce, slight cabbage bitterness, and heavy pickled notes stunned the palate. It was one of the best kim chis I’ve had in a long time. You can tell when kim chi is canned, but Secret Garden’s is truly delicious and homemade. If you like pickled delicacies you’ll really love it. The sweet radishes were nice, but the sweet black beans (soybeans) stole the show. The texture was similar to boiled peanuts, but the sweet, subtle molasses like flavor and crunch was really pleasant.

Suddenly everything else arrived. A small tableside grill was set down and lit before a metal pan attachment was added. A huge plate of rolled and stacked fatty brisket arrived, along with a plate of lettuce. Then a long, oval plate of squid and veggies in spicy sauce landed with a seriously delicious seafood aroma. To go with the beef BBQ we each were given a small flat bowl of sesame oil with a mound of salt in the corner. The more you mix it, the saltier it gets.

The seafood pancake was set off to the side, but it was the first thing I went for. Dipping it in the dark sauce with floating sesame seeds, I took a big bite. Scallops, shrimp, squid, and green onions were cooked into a soft, thin pancake. It wasn’t particularly crispy, but I liked it. In comparison to Chorong House, I’d say Chorong House won this one. Despite what you might think, it had a very subtle flavor. The pancake was packed with all sorts of fresh seafood, but there was no gamey or fishy flavor to speak of.

Grabbing a piece of squid and veggies with my chopsticks, I took a few bites. The Oh Jing Uh Bok Geum had a heavy seafood note contrasted by fresh red peppers, and a very spicy, reddish sauce. I really enjoyed it. The squid was pretty tender with a very clean flavor. Mixed in with broccoli, onions, and green chiles it was really pleasant. Very spicy but also quite sweet and a little salty as well. What you might fear when ordering such an advanced dish isn’t worth the hesitation. This was a delicious item. Next time I’m going to try a seafood soup.

Then came the fun part–cooking the brisket! As is usually done, Mike threw a bunch of diced hot peppers and garlic on the pan and let it sizzle. The smell was awesome. He explained that the general process is to cook it through then wrap it in some lettuce before dipping in the salted oil and taking a bite. As you’ll see in the photo the brisket was a brilliant red and looked like ribbons. Throwing a bunch of very thin-sliced beef on the grill, Mike got to cooking. For any of you worried about raw or undercooked beef, it’s not really an issue at all. The brisket was so thin that it cooks within minutes and the process is idiot-proof. Cook away the pink then serve, that’s all you’ve gotta know. What’s nice about Cha Dol Bae Gi is the real lack of sodium. Asian restaurants take flack for being too salty, but this entree proves that sentiment wrong. What you end up with is a delicious, simple, and pure flavor of beef, richness from the sesame oil, and freshness from the lettuce wrapper. I found myself dipping it in various other sauces we had at the table. It’s a humble, traditional dish and its key lies in the simplicity. I’d recommend it for sure.

Towards the end of the meal the steamed rice cakes in hot sauce arrived. You might picture large, more cake-like pieces but Ddeok Bok Gi is nothing of the sort. It resembles very thick ziti or pasta minus the holes. Several pieces sat in a bright red sauce. I took a bite and was really confused with the texture. A very chewy, almost gelatinous, and somewhat sticky texture was pervasive but given my ever-present open mind I wasn’t put off. It’s perhaps a texture and mouthfeel that is unfamiliar to the more American side of food, but it has a very important place in Korean cuisine. The hot sauce was actually quite sweet and delicious–almost like barbecue. The spiciness was nicely balanced with the sweetness and with the chopped onions and rice cakes taken in one bite, it all works deliciously. I’ve had an odd craving for this dish gnawing at me since this night.

We ended the meal with a couple mugs of a very simple, stomach-calming rice (or barley) tea that I rather enjoyed. Secret Garden was a great experience that I’m so ready to repeat again this week. In the battle for my favorite Asian restaurant the anticlimactic truth is that Chorong House and Secret Garden are an equal match. I prefer the Chorong House kim chi pancake without a doubt, but Secret Garden has the sushi and a far more accessible and more welcoming feel. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Han, who was very happy when I told him I was there on an official review. Thank you Mr. Han for an awesome dining experience and thank you to my friend Mike Wong for the education and the company. Besides telling you whether the food was good or not, I hope you learned a little something from this review.

Head on over to Secret Garden ASAP!

Secret Garden: A Guru Review
2731 Erie Blvd
(315) 449-3333

Disclaimer: All Guru Reviews reflect my OPINION based on a real experience at various Syracuse restaurants.

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  • Kerrie Conwell-Strong

    Good to know, thanks! The place is a favorite of ours as well, but it seems there’s little time to try everything. looking forward to your sushi reviews. :)

  • http://twitter.com/stefnoble Stefanie Noble

    I love Chorong House’s duk bok ki (I think there are 400 different ways to spell this?), so I was interested to hear about Secret Garden’s.

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