I knew it would be a risky choice: Jen Naylor to help critique a Korean restaurant. The Korean food genius of Sussex Farm has a cult-like following for dishes she sells at area farmers markets. And, as good as she is at making Korean food, she may be even better at tasting it. The Korean native trained her palate on the food of one of the best cooks she has known: her mother. “Thanks to her,” says Naylor, “I am blessed with taste buds that know when it’s good eats.”
Naylor’s expertise made me wonder how she would rate Maru, the new Korean restaurant on the Downtown Mall where I had enjoyed several meals. Though I have eaten Korean food for decades, I am no expert. Would Maru meet the high standards of someone like Naylor? To find out, I invited her, along with her daughter, Kelsey, a cook at Ten who is another aficionado, having grown up on Jen’s food.
Maru is the product of Korea natives Steven Kim and his wife, Kay, who moved to Charlottesville from northern Virginia in 2016. The Kims “fell in love with the culture and people of Charlottesville,” says Kay, but found a shortage of great Korean food, and set out to fix it.
Chef Steven brings decades of experience to the kitchen, including a restaurant he ran in Annandale, Virginia’s unofficial capital of Korean food. His focus is twofold: traditional Korean cuisine and more progressive riffs. Melted cheese, for example, has become an unlikely sensation in Korea, and appears often in Maru’s dishes.
Jen prefers traditional cuisine, though, so we steered clear of modern twists. As we sat down and awaited our meal, Jen explained how her mother’s food had “spoiled” her, making her hyper-sensitive to flawed preparations. Uh-oh, I thought. Even if some dishes fail to meet Jen’s standards, will she like any of it?
Thank you, fried squid. “Excellent,” Jen said, of the Korean street food staple. “It brings back great memories—as good as I remembered it growing up in Korea.” Jen also liked the banchan, traditional small side dishes served before or during a meal. One was kimchi—the signature Korean dish of fermented cabbage or other vegetables. Famous for her own kimchi, Jen’s praise speaks volumes. “It’s made with young Napa cabbage,” says Jen, “which is perfect for this time of the year.”
Jen is also known for bulgogi—thinly sliced beef marinated in sweet soy sauce, sesame oil and other seasonings, then grilled. Maru’s version was a hit. “Perfectly cooked,” Jen said. “You can taste the smokiness from the flame grill.”
Kelsey’s favorite, meanwhile, was kimchi jeon, a pancake of kimchi, scallions and flour. “I would come back just for this,” she said. “It’s light and crispy on the edges and very well seasoned.” With the pancake, Kay served makgeolli, a cloudy, tangy rice wine typically enjoyed with the dish. New to me, but a spot-on marriage of flavors. “Amazing,” Kelsey said of the pairing.
We finished with bingsu, a delicious dessert of shaved ice, condensed milk and various toppings, which Kelsey said may become destination-worthy. “Light and refreshing,” she said. “Everything I would want in a summertime dessert.”
After our meal, I returned to sample some of the less traditional offerings we had skipped. Though I was skeptical, I am glad I did. Italy meets Korea in kimchi arancini—balls of kimchi, fried rice and cheese, breaded and fried. In lesser hands, a cultural hybrid like this could be a trainwreck. But, chef Steven nails it, as he does another mash-up: the Philly-Korean bulgogi beef and cheese. On a sub roll, bulgogi joins melted cheese, grilled onions, and—what really sets it off—zesty house-pickled vegetables.
Kay says that the Kims’ aim in opening Maru is to share with others the experiences and love of food they grew up with. And they sure are off to a good start.