am the first to admit that I know very little about Korean cuisine, so
before I hit the Willow Tree Restaurant, located
in Kailua, I knew I needed to do a little research. I learned that
Korean cooking reflects the history of the country, combining flavors and
techniques from both peasant diets and food that would be served in a
pickles and rice are staples, just as in Japanese cuisine, and food is
flavored with combinations of garlic, ginger, rice vinegar, sesame oil,
soy sauce or a base of fermented soybeans. Armed with this knowledge, I
confidently met friends out for dinner at Willow Tree.
found the décor to be rather austere; the lights are too bright and it
looks and feels like a diner. Another downside is that the owners don’t
have a liquor license, so our dreams of savoring a beer were immediately
dashed and we had to make do with Pepsi. But the service was efficient and
very friendly. Opening the menu, we all ordered from the “general
silver dishes arrived first: turnip soup. It looked extremely plain, a
clear broth with a few slices of turnip bobbing about. Yet the soup was
surprisingly well-seasoned and very satisfying. Next came tiny bowls of
kimchi (spiced cabbage), spicy tofu and seasoned, cubed potatoes, for
communal nibbling. Korean food is known for being spicy; cooks have had a
500-year love affair with the chili, which was introduced to the area by
the Portuguese. The kimchi and potatoes here were pleasantly spicy, but
not aggressively so. It seemed a happy medium for those who don’t love
hot flavors and those of us who need the heat.
had ordered the fish juhn mahi mahi ($8.45), thin slices of fish coated
with an egg batter. It was good, but I would have liked a little more
color on the plate to balance the mound of pale-yellow fish. My friend
tried the Willow Tree Special ($12.95), which is a mixed offering of fish
juhn, fried, spicy chicken wings, kalbee (barbecued short ribs), barbecue
chicken and fried mandoo (dumplings). His dish seemed more interesting and
was a great combination of flavors and textures. We also sampled the
boolkokee, which is a barbecued beef.
dishes are available, too, including a mochi (rice cake) soup with beef
and egg or several varieties of mandoo soup. Another option is noodles,
such as shrimp tempura udon or bibim kook soo (cold noodles with seasoned
vegetables and beef). Vegetarians would be a little challenged, but could
probably get by on tofu and squash juhn.
restaurant serves plate lunches from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Priced at $5.95 to
$7.25, those seem like a good value, as the meals are served with rice,
soup, kimchi and vegetables as well as a meat serving such as shoyu
chicken, meat juhn or barbecued short ribs.
I wanted to like the Willow Tree, really
I did. But the whole experience seemed lackluster. The food and décor
both need a shot in the arm, a dose of inspiration. But hey, at least
there’s room to grow.