Meju, a new Korean restaurant in Davis Square that opened late last month, oozes trendiness, almost to a fault. The design motifs chosen seem to be “trendy” and “supersized” — but certainly not “authentic” — as practically everything about the place, except the portions, is pumped up a few proportions.
Even the cutlery was abnormally heavy — yes, this may be odd, but the metal chopsticks, for example, became cumbersome after a while. The chopsticks’ size begged the question of whether the extra heft was to help diners burn off calories accumulated from the decadent food.
The cool, mod space is a bit of a shock in the context of Davis Square, which often feels decidedly untrendy itself. Enough about the space though, what about the food?
Turns out it’s pretty good, actually. One could make a dinner entirely out of the appetizer menu, which consists mainly of smaller (although not small), shareable dishes at prices that reflect the restaurant’s trend factor. In fact, an all-appetizer tapas-style dinner with friends may be the best way to enjoy Meju’s offerings. The cheese dukboki was described, in terms of an Italian palette, as a firm, rice gnocchi. Indeed, even the dish’s presentation was derivative of what one might expect at a modern Italian restaurant, served in a shiny metal skillet. Smothered in cheese and a red spicy sauce, the cheese dukboki should definitely be an item on anyone’s bill.
Other enticing appetizers that, unfortunately, were not sampled this time but definitely would be during another visit, include buns with pork shoulder and sweet potato fries with bulgogi on top.
The entrees are put together for individual, rather than family-style, eating. The portions are more than large enough to be satisfying; although, compared to the price, they are not exactly “generous” in size. Bibimbap, the traditional Korean hotpot and perennial crowd pleaser, comes with miso soup and a spicy sauce, without which the dish is kind of boring — diners can dial in their desired spice level, but should be warned that the sauce is extremely potent. The hot stone bowl that bibimbap nearly always comes in is an add-on at Meju. However, diners should order the bowl, if only because the two-dollar up-charge will be negligible compared to the rest of the bill and because it is the only way to get “socarrat,” the Spanish word for a delicious, crispy rice that gets stuck to the sides of the bowl.
The beef bulgogi, Korean barbequed meat, was par for the course. The dish is sweet but not too sweet, as it should be. The jabchae, vermicelli noodles with vegetables and a choice of protein, was also delicious. The glossy noodles are sometimes hard to grasp with the metal chopsticks, but that almost makes the dish more fun to eat (albeit difficult for the person actually eating the jabchae).
All mains — except for the noodle dishes — come with a side of either white or purple rice and four additional sides called banchan. Many Korean restaurants serve more banchan with an order; for example, this writer’s favorite Korean place in New York serves seven to ten banchan with an order, depending on the size of the dining party. Meju’s sides included a mild kimchi, the most unusual tasting eggplant dish, along with an amazing sharp pickled daikon radish and a very plain pickled cucumber, which was a good pallet cleanser (therefore “plain” is not necessarily a negative term here).
In terms of the overall meal, the food was superb. The service, however, was another story. For context, the restaurant was extremely busy, even on a Sunday night; nevertheless, that does not excuse how unabashedly the service seemed to rush people out the door. Servers asked for customer orders much too soon, and main dishes came out several minutes apart from each other. Maybe the quality of service can be chalked up to the new restaurant having teething issues and finding its groove. In order to succeed, however, Meju needs to bring its quality of service up to the same standard as the quality of its food — and the prices it charges.
Overall, Meju offers a good culinary experience not far from campus; the food is quite good and more stylishly presented than it is at the vast majority of Davis Square options, though at a steeper price.