Meatless Monday: Vegetarian Bibimbap at Restaurant Silla
On a blustery day last January, I pulled into the plaza off the intersection of West Henderson and Reed roads in Upper Arlington for what was to be my first Columbus dining experience. Like most who have made this trek with the promise of a Korean dinner in mind, I stepped out of my car, took one look at the Marc's and Sears on either side of the backlit "Restaurant Silla" sign, and thought, "What am I getting myself into?"
As it would turn out, a memorable meal. The kind of meal out that lingers on your senses for weeks or even months, drawing you back on those nights when you're too wiped out to start the stove or deal with dirtied dishes. Like many of Columbus' best Asian restaurants, Silla's location can be a little off-putting. But all it took was one walk down Silla's alleyway entrance, one push through its old wooden doors and I was a customer for good.
Think Korean cuisine, and one dish usually comes to mind: bibimbap. It's the star of Silla's menu, one owners Kimberly and Duck B. Kim have been serving true-to-form for 25 years (long before one-bowl meals were cool). But those after a meatless meal rarely have an opportunity to try bibimbap. In addition to rice, carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts and a fried egg, a cut of beef is, traditionally, one of the dish's longstanding ingredients. The good news: The Kims don't see the beef as a deal-breaker, as much as, say, the egg. So they serve two semi-word-of-mouth vegetarian renditions. (We didn't find them on the lengthy dinner menu, but our server gladly gave us the scoop.)
There's the standard Bibimbap ($9.95), served cold in a ceramic bowl. And then there's the Dolsot Bibimbap ($12.95). Spend the extra three bucks. I recently tried both versions, and the difference in flavor and temperature is remarkable. The dolsot is delivered to your table, contents popping and sizzling, in a stone pot. To a degree, the ingredients are still cooking as you eat them, making no two bites quite the same. For a little extra zest, add a few squirts of Silla's hot sauce (and order an extra glass of water while you're at it).
Don't bother with an appetizer. Not only is the bibimbap filling, but it's accompanied by an assortment of banchan. These sharable (and vegetarian) side dishes, like sweet potatoes, fried zucchini and seaweed salad, ensure that you and a partner can get in and out under $30.