by Alice Levitt
96 Main Street, West Lebanon, N.H., 603-298-5477
I will travel for the sole purpose of eating Korean food. When I just happened to find myself in West Lebanon, a few minutes from White River Junction, last weekend, obviously I had to try Yama Restaurant.
The spot bills itself as Korean and Japanese, double the pleasure. And it looks like many locals did. In the time I was there, diners streamed in and out for quick lunches and takeout. Many drew pictures on their paper placemats, and the walls were decorated with their handiwork, along with photos of happy customers of all ages.
Immediately after we ordered a mix of dishes from the dinner menu and the special lunch offerings, half a dozen panchan (above right) arrived at our table.
In a nod to Japan, a pile of half-moon-shaped, tempura-battered sweet potatoes was among the dishes. Though it was jarring at first to eat tempura cold, the batter was ethereally light and nicely salted. I was unfamiliar with the chewy black bean dish. Sweet as molasses and with the texture of al dente farro, the little beans were addictive but difficult to eat with chopsticks. The potato salad, presented in a thin soy marinade at most restaurants, was coated in a syrupy teriyaki sauce. Overkill, yes, but I didn't mind. My favorites, however, were the sesame-flavored bean sprouts with just a hint of chili and kimchee-style cucumbers.
I was excited to try the kanpoongki (above right). I am a Korean-fried-chicken fanatic and the stuff isn't easy to come by outside of major cities. My mouth anticipated the sweet-and-spicy taste of gochujang (hot sauce). Though the dish was beautiful, it was essentially a bowl of chicken chunks floating in a bath of sticky, Chinese-style sweet and sour sauce.
I asked the lady who appeared to be the owner or manager whether I might have been given the wrong dish. She said that I was indeed given the correct meal, but what I got was essentially the version tailored to local palates. She understood my disappointment and allowed me to order something else, striking the original plate from my bill.
While I waited for my new lunch, I satisfied myself with a hearty bowl of manduguk, my appetizer that came out just moments before the entrées. Just $3.95, the soup was filled with two huge, gingery dumplings and a scrambled egg. The beef broth had little taste and a few strands of seaweed at the bottom didn't add the hint of brine that I usually expect from manduguk. The best part of the dish was a handful of fat glass noodles hiding at the bottom of the bowl.
I also got to try the spicy pork bulgogi lunch box my boyfriend ordered. The thinly sliced pork was sitting in another pool of red liquid — not an auspicious start. However, the sauce was delicious: strong on ginger and lightly sweet, with a burn that built after each bite. The meat itself was meltingly tender. We also like the grated-ginger dressing on the salad, the avocado and cucumber rolls and fried-shrimp dumplings.
I was a little disappointed with the chapchae. Ideally, the chewy yam noodles should have a strong sesame flavor. While I enjoyed the texture of the stir-fry, there was very little taste beyond a hint of soy sauce.
My new dish came to the table in minutes. The Japanese-style rice bowl was filled with a creamy curry of chicken, carrots, broccoli and potatoes. Full disclosure: I've never met a Japanese curry I didn't like. The spicy gravy is one of my favorite flavors on Earth. This was no different, though slightly mild for my taste. I was impressed that the carrots and broccoli maintained a slight crunch, while the potatoes were tender.
My one complaint was the rice beneath. There wasn't enough of it in proportion to the stew. Unfortunately, it was also overcooked. In places it was more like congee than individual grains.
That said, I will definitely return to Yama the next time I'm in the area. I think I have a handle on what they do well. The manager also explained that if I want the dishes to taste more authentic, I need only ask. I also hope to see our server again. His quirky personality made our meal, from affecting a frog's voice when he asked if we liked our food, to staging a pretend wu shu battle with my boyfriend. Next time I need a fix of bibimbap and imaginary fireballs, I know exactly where to go.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to email@example.com.