Restaurant Review: Exploring New Flavors at Ginza Sushi and Korean Barbecue

5291 Valleydale Rd.


By Deborah Lockridge

When Ginza opened on Valleydale not far from Highway 280, it brought a new cuisine to Birmingham: Korean barbecue, which it serves alongside traditional Japanese and Korean dishes and what is widely regarded as some of the city’s best sushi.

According to Wikipedia, “Korean barbecue, or gogi gui, refers to the Korean method of grilling beef, pork, chicken or other types of meat. Such dishes are often prepared at the diner's table on gas or charcoal grills that are built into the center of the table itself. Most diners enjoy doing their own grilling at the table.”

So when you call for reservations or arrive at the door for dinner, they ask you if you want to eat in the dining room or in the barbecue room, which has the grills in the table.

I did not know any of this when I went to Ginza the first time earlier this fall, for a girls-out lunch with Cheryl, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while and her preschool-age daughter. So we were a little baffled by the menu, and there was a bit of a language barrier for getting explanations. Luckily, the lunch menu is not as large as the dinner menu!

For lunch, you can choose from:

  • Lunch entrees, such as teriyaki chicken or seafood, Korean barbecue Bul-go-gi or Gal-bi, and the Korean dish Bibim-Bab, served with soup, salad, grilled vegetables and fried or steamed rice
  • “Lunch boxes,” your choice of several different teriyaki or Korean barbecue dishes served with 4 pieces of California roll, 2 pieces of Gyoza, fried rice and salad
  • Noodle dishes, such as Yakisoba (stir-fried noodles with selected meats and vegetables), udon (a thick Japanese noodle soup), cold soba noodles, or arrowroot starch noodles with spice sauce (and marinated raw fish if you desire).
  • Sushi combos (served with miso soup and salad)

I at least had heard of Bul-go-gi, having seen several recipes in magazines for home versions, so I suggested it. My friend chose the lunch entrée version of Bul-go-gi, while I had the “Lunch Box” version of Gal-bi.

Bul-go-gi is a popular barbecued beef dish, made from thin slices of a tender cut of beef and marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and garlic. Gal-bi is the most popular variety of Korean barbecue. It is marinated in a sauce that may contain soy sauce, water, garlic, sugar, and sliced onions, and it most often made from marinated beef short ribs, as it is at Ginza.

Both were delicious. My friend’s Bul-go-gi came with not only the soup and salad, but also whole lettuce leaves, which are used to wrap a slice of cooked meat and accompanying condiments before eating. Banchan, small plates of kimchi, pickled vegetables, and other side dishes, can be eaten by themselves or added to your lettuce wrap.

The “Lunch Box” was a beautiful Bento Box presentation, a nice sampling of the Korean entrée and the Japanese appetizers. The Gyoza were lightly fried and crispy, rather than the pot-sticker type I’ve had elsewhere, and were very good. The fried rice was perhaps the best I’ve had anywhere. And the short rib meat itself, which was served in small pieces that had been cut off the bone, marinated and barbecued, was incredibly flavorful and tender, with a slightly sweet glaze. My friend’s daughter liked the miso soup and especially liked my Gal-bi, which I happily shared. (Thanks for the photo, Cheryl!)

After the success of that visit, I told Evan we really had to go. So the day after Thanksgiving, craving something about as different from roast turkey and dressing as you can get, we made reservations for 6 p.m.

We were surprised when we were asked to wait at the bar for a few minutes, because there were plenty of open tables. Evan got a Scotch, I got a glass of Riesling.

When our 6-year-old asked for Sprite without ice, the young Asian woman suggested a “Japanese Sprite” in a bottle from the refrigerator, instead, since she said their fountain Sprite would not be very cold without ice. We were glad she did, because it was fun and tasty. The fun part was the fact that the bottle is sealed with a glass marble, and you have to push it down with a special little device provided with the bottle to open the drink. The marble is caught in a special wide spot in the neck of the bottle where it rolls back and forth while you’re drinking it. The drink itself was good, a little lemon-lime with a hint of some other fruit, not as sugary as its American counterparts. (Do a Web search on “Ramune” if you’re interested in learning more.)

The menu is rather extensive. There’s a page of appetizers, from fairly common fare like Japanese Gyoza dumplings, fried tempura and beef or tuna tataki, to more unusual offerings with half-dried sardines and octopus. Or you can enjoy selections from Ginza’s highly regarded sushi bar, offering sushi rolls, nigiri, and sashimi.

Then there’s the Korean barbecue menu, which from what we can tell is only available if you’re seated at the special barbecue tables. A minimum order for two is required, so I’m thinking if we want to try some of the more unusual offerings like the sliced ox tongue (Hyu-mit-gui), we need to go with at least one other couple. There is, however, a combination for three people featuring Gal-bi, Deung-shim-gui (beef tenderloin), and grilled chicken, shrimp and scallops, so we may try that next time.

You do have the option of ordering some of the more common barbecue items – Bul-go-gi and Gal-bi – in the dining room as combinations under the “Dining” menu. This menu also includes teriyaki entrees, Katsu dinners (lightly panko-breaded and fried chicken or pork), Donburi (a bowl of steamed rice with other food put on top of it), noodle entrees (soba, udon, yakisoba), and some Korean entrees, including Bibim-bab and several varieties of arrowroot starch noodles, including one topped with marinated raw fish in spicy sauce.

We started out with an order of Japanese Gyoza dumplings. Unlike ones we’ve had elsewhere, which are like pot stickers, these were lightly fried. They were very good. Spring rolls were beautifully presented, cut in half and set on end surrounding a bowl of dipping sauce. While they were hot and fresh, the vegetable filling was so finely chopped that when fried it ended up with a bit of a gummy texture. Our 6-year-old loved both.

Because we definitely wanted to try the Korean barbecue, we ordered a combination plate of Bul-Go-Gi and Gal-Bi from the Dining menu. It is not particularly attractively presented on the plate, just a pile of each and another pile of steamed rice, plus an array of the little dishes of “banchan,” as well as a miso sauce, blanched garlic and sliced fresh jalepenos, and of course the lettuce slices. I’m not sure what all the different banchan dishes were, and again, there was a little bit of a language barrier, so we just dove in and sampled. Some we liked, some we did not. There was a traditional cabbage kimchi, a must for most Korean meals and, Evan said, the best he’s ever had. Another dish was a sweet-and-spicy one with zucchini and onion, which was my favorite. The ones we had at dinner varied slightly from the ones my friend had at lunch; I was disappointed that the black beans we’d had at lunch weren’t served with dinner.

I ordered Dol-sot Bibim-bab, which was described as mixed vegetables, beef and egg over steamed rice hot stone pot. Bibim-bab literally means “stirred/mixed rice” or “stirred/mixed meal,” according to Wikipedia. It can be served hot or cold. “Dol-sot" means “stone pot,” and this variation is served in a very hot stone bowl. Before the rice is placed in the bowl, the bottom of the bowl is coated with sesame oil, making the layer of the rice touching the bowl golden brown and crispy.

The result is beautiful. The hot pot arrived sizzling, and the steamed rice is completely covered with about half a dozen different types of vegetables, and matchstick-size piece of marinated beef, arranged around the edges of the sizzling pot, with a raw egg in the middle. As our server explained, the idea is to mix it all together in the hot stone pot, with some of the spicy Korean sauce that is served in a squeeze bottle on the side.

The crispy-chewy chunks of rice, combined with the beef and vegetables and the just-cooked egg, were a new texture sensation. The vegetables included familiar ones like small half-moons of sliced zucchini, but others I couldn’t identify, including what looked like tiny fiddlehead ferns. Wikipedia says that vegetables commonly used include cucumber, zucchini, daikon, mushrooms, doraji (bellflower root), and gim (an edible seaweed), as well as spinach, soybean sprouts, and gosari (bracken fern stems). Not sure what exactly was in mine, but it was all delicious. The sauce reminded me of Vietnamese sriracha, but perhaps a bit sweeter.

The kid’s menu featured rather uninspiring fried chicken, fried shrimp, fried rice, and the like, so we just ordered an extra appetizer of mixed tempura and allowed our daughter to share. She enjoyed the tempura shrimp and loved the Bul-go-gi, but she thought the Gal-bi was too sweet. And she always loves steamed rice with soy sauce. I thought the tempura shrimp was good, but it was not the traditional tempura batter I'm used to; instead, it used Japanese panko bread crumbs to achieve a similar light texture.

There’s a nice list of sakes, both the warm and cold variety. We shared a bottle of cold sake; our server poured it into a clever and attractive carafe that had a hollow bulb extending into it from the side where ice was placed to help keep it cold. Sake is still something fairly new to us, but this was the best we have had so far, light and smooth.

The restaurant is beautiful, with Korean flags hanging from the ceiling, lots of wood, and leafless trees and branches scattered in pots through the dining room, lined with white mini Christmas-type lights. The background music was rather innocuous bad pop, thank goodness not played too loudly. The resulting atmosphere is an interesting blend of sophisticated and tranquil with casual, such as the pop music, the plastic squeeze bottle of Korean hot sauce, and the small TVs at each table in the barbecue room.

The prices, we thought, were quite reasonable. The web site is attractive, but the menu there does not exactly replicate the one in the restaurant, and does not list prices, but between the menu and several photos of the restaurant and the food, it does give you a good idea of what to expect so is well worth perusing before you go.

We’ll definitely be adding Ginza to our repertoire of regular restaurants. There are certainly more than enough options on the menu to keep things from getting boring. Maybe next time we’ll get adventurous and try the octopus, the oxtail, or the marinated raw fish and noodles ...

(Review published December 2008)