Peter Pak says he wants to make Korean food more accessible to the Western palate. That aim has inspired the creation of his new Bellevue restaurant, Oma Bap, located at 120 Bellevue Way NE.
Pak, a native of upstate New York, says his parents were first generation Korean immigrants and he and his brothers grew up enjoying traditional Korean food, but they also are very western and urban in their tastes and lifestyles.
Pak says he and his brothers have talked for some time about how Korean food seems to be one of the least understood by Americans, and how they’d like to see the unique cuisine become more accepted in the mainstream restaurant market.
“I felt like Korean food is one of the few Asian sectors that is less Americanized,” he says. He says a lot of traditional Korean venues feel intimidating to customers if they are unfamiliar with the food.
“I wanted to develop a concept that is very inviting and simple, in a fast and casual setting,” and would expose people to the distinct tastes of Korean food and hopefully encourage them to try more, Pak says.
“Our harshest critics sometimes are Koreans, because they are used to certain vegetables in the dishes,” Pak says.
Then in the face of the economic downturn, Pak, who had been operating a construction and remodeling business in Washington, D.C., says he could see that it was a good time for him to move in another direction. He and his family revisited the restaurant concept, and he decided to launch it in Bellevue, where his brother lived and where there is a diverse population of young professionals who he feels will be open to the concept. Pak is the owner and operator of the restaurant, but he says his family has invested in the restaurant and helped to design the menu also.
Pak says the restaurant’s menu is inspired by Korean cuisine, but it’s not intended to be a traditional menu. For example, he says, the restaurant serves a miso soup with its meals instead of a more traditional Korean soup with a beef broth to accommodate vegetarians and because most people are already familiar with miso. Also, the restaurant serves a salad, which you wouldn’t normally find at a Korean table, he says, but is important to offer to a lunch crowd. The restaurant offers white or brown rice, or a special rice that has five grains as well as black-eyed peas and kidney beans, with its dishes. Pak says he wanted to offer food that is simple, flavorful, and healthy.
“I’m very health-conscious myself,” he says.
Other dishes include a mix of traditional and Korean nouveau. Kim-bap, which is like sushi except the proteins are cooked, and a bulgogi beef and kimchi roll, are dishes you would find in Korea, whereas Oma sliders is one of Pak’s western dishes with a Korean marinated meat twist.
In the restaurant’s signature dish, bibimbap (bap essentially means rice or meal in Korean), some of the vegetables used are more common to the western palate, such as using romaine lettuce instead of boiled spinach, he says. The dish also includes marinated meat, carrots, shitake mushrooms, zucchini, red cabbage, and bean sprouts, all arranged around a sunny-side up egg and garnished with hot sauce. The dish is also the inspiration for the colorful Oma Bap logo.
“We put a lot of planning into it,” Pak says, including both the menu and the interior of the 2,200-square foot restaurant. “I also put a lot of my blood, sweat, and tears in,” he says, working on the remodeling and preparations for the restaurants soft launch in March. The restaurant is very green, Pak says, with recycled bamboo counter tops and non-toxic paints. The restaurant can seat 70 customers inside and about 40 outside, and has already become popular with local high school students, Pak says.
Now, after having some time to train staff and make sure the restaurant is operating smoothly, Oma Bap plans to hold a grand opening on June 23 and 24, Pak says. Special guests at the grand opening will include author Mike Kim, who wrote Escaping North Korea, and actress Arden Cho. Kim also will be doing a book signing at the Barnes & Noble Booksellers in downtown Bellevue on Thursday, June 23.