First Look: Soju in Garfield
Simon Chough’s Korean restaurant is six years in the making.
photos by Hal b. klein
Simon Chough bought a building on Penn Ave in Garfield six years ago with the intention of opening a restaurant serving Hawaiian cuisine.
Chough’s culinary career began in the kitchen of Chef Mavro, a well-known Honolulu restaurant that marries the influence and technique of Executive Chef George Mavrothalassitis’ native Provence with the cuisine and ingredients of Hawaii.
The experience was so inspiring for Chough that he enrolled in the professional training program at prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He spent a few years after graduation working in New York area restaurants such as Gigi Trattoria in the Hudson Valley, but all along he says, “It was always my intention to come back to Pittsburgh, take some of what I know about food and bring it back to the city I grew up in.
While he was rehabilitating the building, a former bar which now seats about 40 people in the comfortable dining area, he decided to switch his focus to something a bit more personal and call his restaurant Soju.
Chough is of Korean descent, and, instead of drawing from a cuisine he enjoyed and was influenced by, but didn’t have a deeply rooted connection to, he would explore something closer to his heritage. "This is my grandmother's food. These are her recipes. It rings true to me,” he says.
Much of Chough’s menu will be familiar to fans of Korean barbecue restaurants — think kalbi, bulgogi and dwaejibulgogi — minus the DIY tableside grills. Instead, Chough sears those items to a pleasurable balance of sweet, smoke and char on a red-hot grill in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Other items on the nicely curated menu include his grandmother’s chicken katsu curry, a hybrid dish reflective of the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, mandu (homemade dumplings stuffed with kimchi or pork) and bibimbap, as well as poke, a holdover from the original Hawaiian concept. Chough says that more offerings, including increased vegetarian and vegan options, are on the way.
My dinner companions and I all thoroughly enjoyed our meal last weekend — the grilled meats and katsu curry were hits. Soju has a solid bar program with a promising cocktail menu, which features an easy-to-drink selection of vividly colored soju-based cocktails and an excellent beer list. I appreciate Chough’s attention-to-detail in preparing rice, too. What too often is a second thought is given as much consideration as the rest of the dishes. “It's the basis for everything. The rice is the first thing. If you don't have the rice right, then the whole thing is off,” he says.
I’m looking forward to watching this restaurant evolve.
4923 Penn Ave., Garfield; 412/956-7699, facebook.com/sojupgh