In Davis Square, Meju serves Korean food that’s just modern enough – The Boston Globe

What are they putting in the food at Meju? At its best, it is so purely craveable, so simply tasty, it seems there must be something illicit stirred in to get us all hooked. All I know is that each time I visit the Korean-inspired restaurant in Davis Square, I eat about twice as much as I should and leave wishing I could eat some more. The next day I’m trying to rearrange my schedule to squeeze in just one more plate of spicy pork bulgogi, a deceptively plain-looking plate of grilled shoulder, its flavor rich and deep.

That unifying ingredient may be meju itself. These bricks of dried, fermented soybeans are one of the building blocks of Korean cuisine, and a fitting namesake for the restaurant. Meju is a key ingredient in ganjang (soy sauce), doenjang (bean paste), and gochujang (chili paste), three condiments that help make dishes like bulgogi and bibimbap taste so good. The fermentation process creates the kind of deep, savory flavor — umami — that communicates directly with the taste buds, bypassing rational thought.

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Meju offers an upscaled, fusioned version of Korean fare. But this is a gentle, appealing adaptation. It reflects a lifelong understanding of the food, rather than passion gleaned from travel to distant lands. Chef-owner Young Kim is also behind Bibim, a more-traditional Korean restaurant in Allston. On the menu at Meju, where David Shin is head chef, sometimes we find the expected crossovers: pork belly tacos in crisp shells with kimchi and lime aioli, sweet potato fries with bulgogi and cotija cheese. More often, though, classics are updated the way they are in restaurants all over town, from trattoria to taqueria — with good ingredients and homemade versions of things (sauces, pickles) that might otherwise be bought.

There is an irony in this. The space Meju occupies was formerly devoted to fast food. No one would ever know this was once a McDonald’s. Kim, an artist, designed both of her restaurants. The results here: a pretty, modern room of gray paint, brick, and natural wood, a bar area along one side and capiz chandeliers overhead. Framed, vintage botanical prints hang on one wall, and a large blackboard advertises drink specials. Servers are kind and solicitous, which makes up for occasional inexperience. (Banchan, the little dishes that accompany a Korean meal, tend to arrive long after everything else.) Local beer is on tap. House cocktails are creative but unpretentious, from carafes of soju mixed with the yogurt-esque drink Yakult to the Korean Pear, Spiked!, which combines bourbon, pear juice, and mint. There is a sweetness to the place.

Atmospherics matter less once you’ve got your muzzle in a skillet of dukboki, chewy Korean rice cakes, mixed with a sweet and spicy orange sauce and topped with bubbling mozzarella and a smattering of scallions. I like this popular snack spicier, but Meju’s version still offers a satisfying array of flavors and textures.

243 Elm St.,
Davis Square, Somerville

Meju’s menu is frequently tweaked, so the jabchae one was hoping to order might no longer be available, but a new kind of dumpling has arrived. Flat pork dumplings on one visit are folded-over triangles filled with a spicy, savory mixture, the skins wonderfully chewy. Jeon, or Korean pancakes, are a constant. The kimchi pajeon has a very pleasant texture, with flaky layers and a lighter chew than the dumplings, but it lacks punch. Scallion pancakes are a bit more interesting.

Kimchi crab fritters are toned down too. They are fried nicely, with crisp, greaseless exteriors, but the flavors of crab and kimchi are too subtle. Meju might embrace a bit more heat; our tongues can take it.

And then there are surprises. Mushroom bokkeum sounds as if it will be unremarkable, but the mixture of mushrooms — oyster, shiitake, enoki, and more — stir-fried in garlic and soy, is a simple, smoky stunner. A dish of galbi follows suit. It’s just grilled short rib with soy, but it doesn’t need to be anything more. Just pick up a piece and gnaw the charred beef off the bone. It’s elemental.

Bibimbap is a disappointment. The rice is purple. The stone pot sizzles. Carrots, spinach, radish, sprouts, and more make for a colorful display. It’s beautiful but bland, and no amount of gochujang stirred in can fix it. A nice touch, though: mushroom broth to pour in at the end,
scraping and releasing the last crunchy grains of rice.

No one who orders a dish of braised pork belly will hold a grudge. The slices are meaty, with just enough fat. They come with soft leaves of lettuce and crisp ones of endive, to fold around the pork with spicy pickled radish and pear. I wonder when I can come back for more.

Desserts include a green tea mousse cake (pretty but flavorless) and coconut panna cotta with quince marmalade (too much gelatin). The best offering is mochi ice cream, available in green tea, red bean, and strawberry.

Somerville, MA -- 03/20/15 -- Grilled Short Rib or "Galbi" is served as an entree at Meju restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts. The dish consists of marinated grilled short ribs, served over a bed of onions. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)

The Boston Globe

Galbi, or grilled short rib, on a bed of onions.

Not all of Meju’s dishes are equal, but the good ones are great. For years, food prognosticators have promised that Korean cuisine is the next big thing, but aside from the occasional kimchi-topped burger or gochujang-spiked aioli, it has been slow to percolate into the local scene. Anyone who needs persuading might visit Meju, where the food stakes a claim on the taste buds and makes one want to return.

Somerville, MA -- 03/20/15 -- Cheese Dukboki is served as a small plate at Meju restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts. The dish consists of spicy rice cake, cabbage, onion, and mozzarella cheese. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)

The Boston Globe

Dukboki, made with Korean rice cakes mixed with a sweet and spicy orange sauce and topped with mozzarella and scallions.

Devra First can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.