Out with Indian, in with Korean—that’s the transition that took place recently at the north 301 strip mall outpost once occupied by Curry Station and now home to Ssam Bar. I loved Curry Station (still do; the restaurant’s Clark Road location remains open), but I’m also glad Ssam Bar came along, growing the city’s Korean scene with a menu heavy on the peninsula’s classics and lunch platters that start at just $8.
Like the menu, the interior has also been reimagined with a stark black-and-white design. Black bricks line the bottom half of the walls. A giant mirror expands the space on one side, while the opposite wall is plastered with an enormous graphic map of Seoul. Hand-scrawled well wishes on white paper are pasted up, too. Eleven tables crowd the room, which is lined with Ssam's sushi bar in the back.
Yup Namgoong opened up the place last Wednesday. He used to operate Bradenton’s Sam Oh Jung, a combination sushi and Korean spot that he sold a few years back. At that location, 70 percent of his sales were sushi, he estimates. At Ssam Bar, which also offers sushi, that ratio has flipped, with 80 percent of customers ordering Korean. Smart move. Not that the sushi’s not good. It’s just that the Korean is quite tasty.
A bowl of jjamppong ($10) is huge, a cauldron of rust-red broth loaded with thick, chewy noodles, zucchini, onions, carrots, cabbage and a magnanimous helping of mussels, shrimp and squid. It’s spicy enough to get your pulse going, but subtle enough that your tongue doesn’t incinerate.
The restaurant’s bibimbap, meanwhile, comes two ways: normal ($12) or served in a superheated stone pot for $2 more. Opt for the pot. The dish emits a crackling sound as our server sets it down. That’s the sound of the rice on the bottom caramelizing, converting the loose grains into a heavenly concoction that resembles a savory rock candy.
The kimchi gee gae ($12), meanwhile, is built out of a cabbage-rich broth made from kimchi. A pick of banchan, small side dishes, accompanies every meal, sharpening the deeper flavors of the soups and broths with pungent discharges of acid and spice. A savory pancake laced with squid and shrimp ($10) makes for an excellent beginner, as does a pot of the restaurant's boricha, an earthy barley tea that's not listed on the menu but that should become a staple. Give it, and Ssam Bar, a go.
Ssam Bar is located at 1303 N. Washington Blvd., Sarasota, and is open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. For more info, call (941) 312-6264 or check them out on Facebook.