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Dinner, Transcending

In Los Angeles, chef Kwang Uh cooks with deep intentionality at Baroo

Jars filled with fermenting fruits and vegetables, slowly transforming and bleeding their yellows and oranges and reds, cover the back wall of Baroo in Los Angeles. The restaurant is otherwise spare. Housed in the center of a shabby strip mall two blocks from Hollywood Forever cemetery, it fits less than twenty diners. Remove the one long, wooden communal table, and the place would take on the asceticism of a meditation hall. Floor tiles are the color of earth and slate. White walls are largely bare. The eye goes immediately to that array of jars and containers, unexpected and remarkable.


There's another notable piece of decor, a framed quote perched on the restaurant's dining counter, which runs along the wall. It reads:

Where do these meals come from?
I don't deserve them with my own virtue.
Putting down all the desires on my mind.
Regarding this medicine to keep our bodies.
We get it to complete the task of enlightenment.

At a glance, these phrases might come across as SoCal platitudes, postures affected by people who like their food clean and their protein shakes green. Buzzwords that reference mindfulness sell here in Los Angeles: The city has spawned a mini-chain of restaurants called Cafe Gratitude; juice bars refer to consuming their products as "a ritual." But the words on Baroo's wall come out of a very different tradition.

Baroo's chef and co-owner, Kwang Uh, is a native of South Korea; he culled the quote from an essay he wrote while studying at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. The words are his version of a prayer he remembered from Buddhist ceremonial meals in Korea. He liked the intention behind the invocation, the reminder not to cling so tightly to ego, and wanted it to inform the vision for his restaurant. He conceived Baroo as a humble pursuit of these ideals — a small-scale, under-the-radar experiment, where he could hone his very individualistic style of cooking.

Wonho Frank Lee

Noorook

The restaurant's short menu and mini-mall location belie the level of Uh's training; he has toured the planet in pursuit of cooking mastery. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in 2009, spent time afterward at Daniel in New York and the Nobu outpost in the Bahamas, and staged at restaurants like Noma and Spain's Quique Dacosta. He moved to Los Angeles last year and immediately jumped into running 16-seat Baroo, along with Matthew Kim, a childhood friend. It's just the two of them, cooking and serving lunch five days a week and dinner every night but Monday. They prepare around seven plates, $9 to $15 apiece, mostly grain salads and pastas. From these basic formats, they build symphonic raptures.

Take the dish Uh calls noorook. The name is a phonetic spelling for the Korean version of koji, the rice culture inoculated with the mold aspergillus oryzae that acts as a starter for things like miso, sake, and soy sauce. Uh blends the noorook with pureed roasted beets and cream, which he adds to a mix of pleasantly chewy grains — Job's tears, kamut, and farro — and then surrounds with a dizzying number of other ingredients: seaweed dashi, toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds, macadamia nuts, finger lime segments, and a few wisps of onion pickled with rose.

Basically, the dish is a mic drop on the done-to-death beet salad you'll find in nearly every restaurant these days. The koji is earthy sweet — almost mulchy, in the best possible sense. Everything else on the plate orbits around its glossy goodness, pinging sweet, citrusy, floral, and umami tastes that vary with every forkful. I felt not just sated after finishing it, but nourished.

As the koji (and those jars in the back) might hint, Uh has a thing for fermentation. Some fermented element makes a star showing on nearly every plate. Fried rice shimmers from the addition of a gentle, dulcet pineapple kimchi. Powdered sauerkraut gives an extra level of zing to a lush oxtail ragout clinging to homemade pasta. The drink of choice is homemade kombucha, served in flavors like elderberry or yuzu with lemon verbena.

Baroo Fermentation Shelf Wonho Frank Lee

The fermentation wall at Baroo

There is an utter individualism to Uh's approach to the food he serves; I would go as far to say it's the only restaurant of its kind in America. Uh and Kim didn't expect Baroo to draw much attention, but the sheer vibrance of the food has mesmerized LA's dining critics and obsessives. Since opening last August, the restaurant has been labeled an "avant-garde Korean fermentation health food restaurant," "a taste of the future," and the place that is "taking up the mantle of California cuisine." I think those descriptions are true. But there's also something deeper about the restaurant that struck me personally — something I've never sensed in quite the same way during my 14 years of writing about dining in America. Baroo comes across as an exercise in Buddhist practice.


"Baroo" is part of a longer Korean word, phonetically spelled baroo-gong-yang, which refers to the traditional Buddhist temple meals in Korea that includes a host of small vegetarian dishes, many enlivened with kimchi and other fermented foods; "baroo" refers specifically to the name of the bowl out of which monks eat their meals.

In my twenties, I was a serious student of Zen. I was kicking around the country in the mid-1990s, a little lost but not freaking out too much over it, cooking in restaurants to support myself and in my spare time meditating and teaching myself to write. These dual interests had been kindled when a friend had given me a book, Writing Down The Bones, by writer, teacher, and Zen practitioner Natalie Goldberg.

A foundation of Zen is the sesshin, or meditation practice period. It can last a half-day, seven days, or longer. It includes zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), simple meals, and work practice. If this sounds relaxing, trust me when I say it is not. I sat a seven-day sesshin in Minneapolis once. Each day began before dawn and lasted well into the night. Adhering to the repetition and structure of the practice is one of the hardest things I've ever done. My body ached; my mind revolted a thousand times a day. At the end of the week, I felt like fistfuls of live wires had been pulled out of me and left in the open to sizzle. At the same time I felt exceptionally still and present — more so, honestly, than I've probably been before or since.

Baroo Dish 1 Wonho Frank Lee

Gim

My second meal at Baroo transported me back to that feeling. I'd shown up for dinner, right as the restaurant opened on a Sunday evening. While Matthew Kim took my order at the counter, I could see Kwang Uh's straight back in the kitchen by the stove. His motions were certain, deliberate. He hustled but he stayed composed. Kim occasionally stepped into the kitchen to help, but Uh did most of the cooking alone. While waiting for my friends to arrive, I stood off to the side and watched him compose his bibim salad, a riff on Korean bibimbap. He covered a mix of quinoa, oats, and bulgur in a dressing of tomato and gochujang (fermented chile paste), drizzled an herb coulis around the plate, and buried the grains in an artful pile of shaved fennel, celery, radish, and other vegetables. And then he went on to the next task.

Obviously, that's the job of a cook: repetition, focus, consistency. But I've watched hundreds of chefs at work over the years, and Uh was the only one whose calm and steadiness made me think: This reminds me of practicing in that sesshin.

The head cook in a Zen monastery is called the tenzo. Tassajara Dinners & Desserts, a cookbook inspired by the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Big Sur, cites instructions for the tenzo laid out by Dogen, a thirteenth century monk who is one of Zen's great teachers: "When steaming rice, regard the pot as your own head; when washing rice, know that the water is your own life." That quality of mindful presence comes through so clearly in Uh's cooking. In my time, I've dined at a lot of restaurants run by various spiritual organizations, and rarely has the food come across as this alive and this delicious.

I asked Uh in an email if he considers himself a Buddhist. "I might say half joking and half real that a two-staff operation is a great practice in lowering ego and connecting self to the Universe," he replied. "If I have to say my religion, I can say I'm Buddhist, but really I'm the sort of person who respects aspects of every valid religion. Most of the Buddhists I know don't take Buddhism as religion but rather as a sort of life guide. That's why I'm into it."


Mindfulness doesn't mean perfection is guaranteed. I'd suggest going to Baroo on a weekday if possible, at the beginning or end of a shift, to appreciate the restaurant at its calmest. Uh stays composed in the maelstrom, but at its busiest the one-man kitchen can lag, and the wait times can be frustrating to customers. Food comes out in sputters and Uh might run out of garnishes — say, the blue potato chips that add frisky crunch to the pineapple kimchi fried rice.

Baroo Dish Wonho Frank Lee

Baroo's Ragu Style

That is the challenge of opening a restaurant as an experiment, rather than a well-staffed operation. Uh and Kim didn't at all anticipate their popularity or impact. It's one thing to craft a very personal expression of food with love and spiritual intention. It's another to churn out plates for hungry customers. For a while Uh seemed determined to keep the operation as only him and Kim. Recently he mentioned that he's likely going to hire at least one additional pair of hands to help out.

Despite its quirky nature, Baroo's success is hardly surprising. It speaks to so many of the zeitgeit's favorite culinary topics: vegetable-forward cooking, an interest in Korean flavors, the endless appeal of comfort food, the fascination with fermentation. Uh has managed to combine these things organically, into a holistic, ornate style that's all his own. Los Angeles is fertile ground right now for similarly tiny restaurants run by accomplished chefs who want to cook from the heart without enormous overhead. Jessica Koslow started a national breakfast sensation at Sqirl, whose seating comprised 10 stools around a counter when it opened in 2013. Former Patina chef Charles Olalia now crafts rice bowls inspired by his Filipino heritage at the seven-seat Rice Bar downtown. Miniscule restaurant Dune, in Atwater Village, redefines the modest falafel sandwich with its exquisite, richly textured interpretation.

Baroo is the most fascinatingly unconventional of them all. The spiritual inquisitiveness that comes through in Uh's approach differentiates it from restaurants that nail the trends but don't embody his unique search for connection. Baroo is a cutting-edge model for a restaurant — modest and ambitious and punishing, and centered around an ethos rather than a specific cuisine. Certainly its very existence, with the spotlight on fermentation and in the extreme dedication of its owners, is a testament to the art of transformation.

Perhaps it’s also untenable. The experiment might end at some point. Uh has hinted that he might close the restaurant after its one-year anniversary this summer and move on to something else. Given his resume, he seems prone to wandering. I’m hoping Baroo’s success might convince Uh to stay put in Los Angeles for a while. But who knows? One of Buddhism’s most famous truisms is that the origin of suffering is attachment. That’s why the subject of food shows up so regularly in Buddhist teachings: Eating is a daily lesson in impermanence. Like monks performing ikebana, the Zen art of arranging flowers with the awareness that they will wither away, chefs start from scratch, building beautiful plates, and we demolish them.

5706 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, (323) 819-4344, baroola.strikingly.com

Header photo by Bill Addison. All other photos by Wonho Frank Lee for Eater LA.

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