Innovative menu features up-to-date Japanese and Korean favorites.
Some dishes are so regularly done in the same boring, homogenous way that most of us have accepted that this is the way they’re supposed to be. Just look at pad thai, which in America is usually overly sweet and devoid of the telltale tang of tamarind, or hot and sour soup, generally little more than a thickening slick of corn starch. Proper versions (or more interesting renderings) are the outliers, and they often can take a moment to get used to.
I bring this up because Doma’s calamari bibimbap eschews easy flavor shortcuts and sidesteps the problems that tend to plague even the easier chicken and beef versions. Yes, there was a hint of sweetness, but that was more from the caramelization of the rice and marinade against the sides of the sizzling stone bowl. And anyway, that wasn’t the defining characteristic. Rather, it found its footing on the more nuanced side of the spectrum—a sour undertow limning the bitter crunch of thin-sliced napa cabbage, the high-toned perfume of onion, the tingling spice of Korean kochujang paste, the earthy tenderness of perfectly cooked calamari.
I’d ordered it with trepidation, visions of squiddy rubber bands dancing in my hand; I tucked into it with gusto, fears quelled.
Doma opened back in February, and has become a nice magnet for the neighborhood slightly north of the Free Library's central branch. On a recent Thursday night, a constant stream of customers filed in and out, most of them young and roll-off-the-couch casual in shorts and flip-flops or sneakers. The staff, also young, as well as attentive and unselfconsciously cool, completed the picture: This is a restaurant that looks forward in more ways than one.
The menu features dishes both Japanese and Korean, and while it seems to do best with the latter, the former acquit themselves well, too. And while manager Dan Kwon says that Doma is a Japanese restaurant with some Korean dishes, he concedes that the M.O. is “all about being modern,” and taking “traditional Korean items and bringing them up to the times,” he told me.
Tuna yook hwe is a useful example, its singular presentation delivers its inherent promise. Thick slices of raw tuna dressed in sweet sesame sauce were arranged to resemble a bird’s nest; this impression was reinforced by the taut quail egg perched on top. Matchsticks of sweet Asian pear and cucumber framed the fish, and a nutty-sweet fried rice cake anchored it all. Every component contributed to the whole and, depending on the combination of components pinched between the chopsticks, the flavors cut a fabulously wide swath.
Kalbi skewer was more straightforward and provided nearly as much pleasure with less challenge. This was just three chunks of beef short rib strung between a trio of scallion heads on a wooden dowel, but the dearth of ingredients allowed each of the flavors to stand out with the darker, charred aroma of the hot grill.
Stuffed jalapeño tempura was a highlight, despite my resistance to the charms of cream cheese-raw fish combos (I’ve never met a Philadelphia roll I’ve particularly enjoyed). Here, though, the cheese was utilized well, draping the tongue in a layer of fat that mitigated the jalapeño’s fire and allowed its sweet-smoky character to come out. Surprisingly, the spicy-mayo-kicked shredded tuna wasn’t the star of this show, but it didn’t have to be: It was a bit player, albeit a confident one.
Maki omakase has to be one of the best Japanese deals in the city: The six rice-and-nori rolls, topped with a stunningly generous and well-conceived portion of fish, are a steal at $16. The uni was another highlight, its sweet, livery flavor and velvet texture awakened by the occasional flash of black tobiko popping between the teeth. Snapper was allowed to shine on its own and barely needed the quasi-requisite drag through soy sauce, and seared salmon, curled in on itself like a sleeping infant, benefited immensely from its quick brush with fire.
Panko-fried-oyster steamed buns sang with the briny, earthy funk of the shore on a hot day, but their braised pork belly counterpart was a letdown, the meat’s pale appearance an apt metaphor for its taste. Mochi-encased strawberries were also disappointing; their bean-paste costume was homemade and excellent, but brought little to the strawberries or chocolate dipping sauce and came off as gimmicky.
Banana tempura, however, is worth the few hundred extra calories. The melted fruit is encased in a protective, crunchy layer of deep-fried, artery-clogging happiness and accompanied by a serviceable green-tea ice cream that, I was told, may soon be replaced by a house-made version.
The fact that Doma is still tweaking its technique this far into its tenure on the 1800 block of Callowhill is a heartening sign. These days, a busy restaurant may be tempted to avoid changing anything for fear of losing a fickle customer base. But this is not your standard Japanese/Korean restaurant; the range of thoughtful dishes and energy in the dining room imply a well-deserved long life ahead.
1822 Callowhill St.
Cuisine: Modern Japanese and Korean.
Hours: Tues.-Thurs., noon-2:30pm and 5:30-10pm; Fri., noon-2:30pm and 5:30pm-10:30pm; Sat., 5-10:30pm; Sun., 5-9pm.
Price range: $2-$42.
Atmosphere: Light, calming colors and a welcoming, cool vibe.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014