We were placed in their special event room on the side of the restaurant, and luckily we were joined at our table by Dr. Lucy Park, a pediatrician from UIC who was able to guide us through our meal. The evening began with some very nice speeches from our hosts including the Korean Consulate General. We were also shown a video explaining the basics behind Korean cuisine. It was an excellent introduction for someone like myself who has only had Korean food a handful of times.
According to some Korean friends of mine and Dr. Park, Woo Lae Oak is more upscale than most Korean restaurants, and the dining is a little finer. They recently switched to a very experienced chef who even used to cook for the South Korean president and specializes in seasonal cuisine. The restaurant is pretty large with lots of seating, so although they take reservations you can probably get by without one.
The service was impeccable throughout the night, but again it wasn't the typical dining situation so I can't speak to that. Additionally, we were treated to this meal, but I took a peak at the menu to try and figure out pricing for you guys. I think if you went you'd probably spend somewhere around $25 per person.
The first dish we got was a Sweet Pumpkin Porridge, which according to the menu protects against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (I'm not sure how a sugary soup could help with diabetes, but I'll take their word for now). It had somewhat of a uniform texture, but a very nice flavor. It was freezing outside, so the nice warm soup was a great starter.
The Sweet Pumpkin Porridge
The next course included Anshim Pyunchae (marinated beef strips wrapped in radishes), Gujeolpan (a build your own mini-wrap dish with a variety of veggies and meats), and Japchae (glass noodle stir fry with meats and veggies). I thought the Anshim Pyunchae was elegant in presentation, and the marinated beef tasted fantastic (newest menu item). I wasn't so impressed with the Gujeolpan because for the most part it was difficult to handle and lacking in a bit of flavor. Still, with all of the shredded meats and veggies to put on your wrap it had a very fresh appeal. The Japchae was very tasty with a sweet marinade and plenty of textural complexity between the noodles, crunchy veggies, and savory meats.
The Anshim Pyunchae
For the third course we had Dukbokki (peanut-shaped rice cakes in a spicy chili sauce) and Bulgogi (marinated bbq beef). I'd had Bulgogi before and knew what to expect. I don't know how anyone wouldn't like this dish in that it's tender beef with a sweet and savory sauce. I was really perplexed by the Dukbokki at first, but it ended up being one of my favorites. The sauce was intriguing and not overly spicy. Mostly though, the texture of the rice cake was amazing. It was almost like one of those tapioca balls in bubble tea. We also had some traditional Blackberry Wine with this course (it tasted a lot like Manischewitz).
The Blackberry Wine
For the fourth course we were given a tray of Banchan (various Korean side dishes). This included three types of Kim Chi, fried tofu, bamboo shoots, and a zucchini dish. Fermented cabbage (Kim Chi) might not be for some, but I really dig it. You can wrap some rice in these vinegary, spicy cabbage leaves and get such a flavorful punch. The zucchini, bamboo, and tofu were all a nice touch as well, but the all star in my mind was the spicy Kim Chi.
For the final course we were served Busuht Yukkaejang (spicy mushroom soup) followed by Sujung-Gwa (chilled cinnamon tea). The Busuht Yukkaejang tasted almost exactly like the spicy broth from the hot pot at Lao Sze Schuan. The Consulate General came to our table to see if we could handle the spiciness, and at the same time Ricky was so excitedly slurping it down that some dripped down his chin. I think if being a CPA doesn't work out, he'd be an excellent diplomat. The spiciness was overwhelming for some people at our table though. The tea was strange because it seemed like it should be hot, but it was a very refreshing way to close out an excellent meal.
The Busuht Yukkaejang
First of all the program was an excellent way for anyone to learn about Korean food. Clearly there was a smorgasbord of options. Woo Lae Oak may be a bit far for me to go to on a regular basis, but if you're in Rolling Meadows anytime soon then this is where you should go. The keys to this meal were the freshness of the ingredients, the textural balance of almost every dish, and the combination of sweet, spicy, and savory throughout the meal. I'm giving Woo Lae Oak 4 out of 5 Pearls.