Dine Out Maine: At Portland’s N to Tail, choose wisely between Korean barbecue or modern, upscale cuisine

Tyler Rocheleau and Nicole DeMedio, both of South Portland, dine upstairs at N to Tail.

Long before he became a chef and restaurateur, Jung Hur was an artist. Painting has always been this Seoul native’s medium of choice, especially roomy canvases that give him the real estate to explore tangled relationships between opposites.

When I ask him about an enormous abstract that hangs in the stairwell of his new, dual-concept restaurant, N to Tail, he explains that the castanet-shaped figures that appear to launch themselves from the work’s meridian – like sparrows frightened from a tree – are actually keyholes.

SERVING: Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m., Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., Saturday, noon – 10 p.m., Sunday, noon – 9 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Downstairs: Barbecue: $3-$25, Upstairs: Small plates: $6-$15, Large plates: $16-27

NOISE LEVEL: Downstairs: Sheet metal factory; Upstairs: Canoeing at dawn

VEGETARIAN: Some dishes

GLUTEN-FREE: Many dishes

RESERVATIONS: Yes.

BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No

BOTTOM LINE: Not long after Jung Hur, the chef/owner of Fuji Restaurant, shuttered his former business in 2018, Portland residents were surprised to see a short menu of Korean BBQ dishes appear on a laser-printed slip of paper tacked to the exterior door. Like Martin Luther’s 95 theses, that truncated menu was a mission statement for what was to come. In this case: the area’s only Korean BBQ. Today, the menu has grown to include dozens of vegetable and meat options. And while the food can be decent (especially the miso-marinated flap meat and grilled asparagus), the subterranean space is violently loud and not terribly attractive. Fortunately, Hur didn’t stop there. On the upper level of the restaurant, he fashioned a modern, upscale Korean restaurant that produces playful, sophisticated takes on classic dishes like jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles) and baechujeon (napa cabbage pancake), as well as a few extraordinary original plates, like an ultra-tender confit of rabbit served with a sweet-savory demiglace and pan-fried ddeok (chewy, mochi-like cylinders). It’s heaven and hell, all in one restaurant. Fortunately here, you can choose where you wind up.

“My philosophy,” Hur says, “is that everybody has their own perspective to look through. We use it to recognize splits: yin and yang, good and bad, cold and hot, magnets have an N and an S, and there’s nose and tail, like the name of the restaurant.”

Hur’s previous business, Fuji, occupied the same Portland building as N to Tail until late 2018, and just like its predecessor, it straddled two floors. That is where the similarities end. With his new restaurant, Hur has gone out of his way to draw bright lines between his past as a sushi chef (both at Fuji and its acclaimed New York predecessor, Kirara) and his current focus on what he calls “Korean food from the mother tongue.”

But unwittingly, he has set up a duality of his own, with an upstairs and downstairs that offer two separate menus and two dramatically different dining experiences.

“Would you like Korean cuisine or Korean barbecue?” the staff will ask as you stop at the host stand. Never mind that both technically fall under the rubric of Korean cuisine – this is an important crossroads. Choose wisely.

If you opt for Korean BBQ, you’ll be handed short menus and guided back into the vestibule, down the steps and into the recently renovated basement. It’s a long, echoing space with concrete floors, a mammoth bar and a surfeit of brick. In the the dining area, you’ll find more than a dozen tables outfitted with gas-powered grills and a wall of mirrors etched with the outline of crashing waves. The mirrors don’t really make the space feel bigger as much as they reflect the unflattering, bluish bulb light that gives the room the ambiance of a gas station.

Downstairs, if you haven’t guessed yet, is the wrong choice.

The charmless atmosphere – something you’d never expect from an aesthetically attuned owner like Hur – is hardly the only turn-off. The noise from other diners is crushing, ramping up exponentially with every added person. Very quickly, you lose the appealing sounds of sliced onions ($3) and eggplant ($4) hissing on the open grill grates, along with the rhythmic popping from fiery droplets of fat whose slowing warns you to grab your chopsticks to retrieve well-seasoned shavings of Korean red-miso-marinated flap meat ($7).

In this room, it is hard to hear anything. On my first visit, the space was less than a third full, but my dinner guests and I still had to shout over the din, thanks to a family at one end and three young men doing sake bombs ($9) at the next table.

“You might want to back up,” one bellowed at me as he balanced a shot of sake on a pair of chopsticks laid across the rim of his beer glass. “The last time I did this, I just splashed the whole place. It was like a wet T-shirt contest, and it took me eight of these to get drunk enough.”

Admiring his honesty, I did as I was told, and when I heard the sizzle of splattered beer on my table’s grill, I was happy I had. Soon after, our server came to alert their party that it was last call. Immediately after they left, she returned to speak with us. “You can have another drink, don’t worry,” she said. “I just couldn’t let that kid chug another beer in six seconds.”

While we were grateful for the rescue, I wished she had paid a bit more attention when helping us understand how to use the grill properly. Apart from a curt, “Veggies first, then meat. Keep everything in the center when it’s cooking,” she offered almost no other guidance. So little, that it wasn’t until we flagged her down halfway through the meal that we discovered the savory-sweet condiment we had been using was a maple-soy dipping sauce.

On strongly flavored items like asparagus ($4), sesame-marinated kalbi short rib ($12), and salmon ($6), the sauce was terrific. But beware: Its salinity can easily overwhelm scallops ($8) or paprika-and-butter-rubbed rabbit meat ($13).

Our server also didn’t seem to know the menu well. When I ordered a Winter Vegetable Bowl (really just a vegetable bibimbap, $8), she looked at me, confused, then insisted on double-checking that my order did not violate the firewall between upstairs and downstairs dishes.

It didn’t, but a few bites into the sparse, largely unseasoned dish, I wished it had. Most disappointingly, it was served in a ceramic bowl rather than a smoldering dolsot, which meant no chance for nurungji (crunchy rice) to develop at the bottom.

“To be honest,” my server said as she collected my largely untouched bowl, “the food is a lot better upstairs.”

A week later, I was back, and this time opted to remain on the swank, tin-ceilinged upper level when the host inquired, “Korean cuisine or Korean barbecue?”

Here, among a few of Hur’s moodier canvases and an abstract light fixture that resembles a box of Kleenex taking flight, I got a bigger shock than I anticipated. Rather than a retread of my clamorous, beer-sprinkled meal, I encountered a whisper-quiet dining room with some of the most exciting, nuanced cooking in Portland today.

In part, that is because this is where Hur expends the majority of his energy. “I can’t handle both (menus) myself, so for downstairs, I just control the meat, and people do the rest. Upstairs, everything is controlled by me. Everything,” he said.

Drawing inspiration from Seoul’s Gyeongsang-do, a Southern Korean pocha-macha (tent restaurant) that specializes in beachy street food, Hur takes a classic recipe for baechujeon (savory cabbage pancake) and tinkers with it, adding potato starch to the buckwheat batter to give it a lighter interior and golden perimeter. He garnishes his version ($8) with a sprinkle of Korean chili powder and a scattering of beet microgreens and serves it with a shallow bowl of ginger-soy dipping sauce. The flavors are at once dusky and alive with spice, crunch and sweetness.

In his riff on another perennial Korean favorite, jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles, $15), Hur largely sticks close to tradition, stir-frying softened onions, zucchini and thumb-sized slices of pork belly together with thick-cut wheat noodles. He goes off-script by topping the inky pasta with chrysanthemum greens that deliver an exuberant, aromatic punch that brightens the dish.

The rabbit confit is a French-Korean fusion, and a captivating dish.

But Hur doesn’t stop at reinterpreting classics. His creativity and smart execution are in full flight when he devises his own dishes, like a French-style confit of rabbit ($22) he serves with North Korean-style sweet-savory soy-glazed ddeok (chubby, chubby, mochi-like cylinders). By slow-poaching the rabbit in oil, Hur transforms the ultra-lean meat. Touch it with your fork, and it succumbs. Every bite of chewy ddeok dipped into the jalapeño-oil demiglace underscores the rabbit’s tenderness further.

When I tasted it, I couldn’t believe I was sitting 15 feet above where I’d sat dodging sake bombs one week prior. But there I was, eating a captivating dish as good as any single plate I have tasted in New England.

Upstairs, it turns out, is the right choice.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Twitter: AndrewRossME

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