The terrific new restaurant Yobo is named for an affectionate term Korean couples call each other. What it means is “Hey you!” and it reflects a useful dose of cynicism baked into the Korean concept of love. Such realism is too rare here in the US, where sociologists observe that coupledom has undergone a process of “deinstitutionalization.”
Pairing off with a spouse, once a normal part of transitioning to adulthood, now represents an ontological capstone — a signal that you and your “soul-mate” have finished growing up and arrived as complete adults. The disappointments that follow thus seem all the more unbearable, leading to a lifetime of mutual resentments and efforts to fix one another.
So in an era where our high expectations for coupledom are serially disappointed, it is refreshing to see a couple set and meet high expectations for cuisine. Yobo, run by partners whose roots are in Maine and Korea, is the most interesting new restaurant in Portland. What makes it so good? The cuisine is mostly Korean — and yes, of course, Portland needed a Korean place. But it is unlike (and better than) any Korean restaurant we have had here before.
Yobo is experimental — like an imaginative small-plate place that happens to work with Korean flavors. And even where it is most traditional it still surprises — like with the chewy, minty, garlicky, chili-braised parilla leaves, which are just one of the fantastic little bowls of banchan you can nibble throughout your meal. The leaves, like many ingredients, come direct from the chef’s mother’s garden.
Other kimchi and banchan are a step above the usual — a chewy, fishy-hot anchovy jerky, daikon served two ways, soft and pale baby braken fern, and candied black beans. Beside these bowls you can continue to fill your table thanks the menu’s rotation of inexpensive small plates. Recently a variety of peppers (“from Momma Chung’s garden”) — spicy Korean long hots, anaheims and shishito — had been stuffed with a blend of beef, pork and vegetables, each pepper combining with the rich, flavorful interior in its own way.
Another night those peppers were served blistered with a fantastic togarashi aioli. Delicate lobster sashimi is kissed with tamarind and curry. There is often a beautifully plated crudo among the specials, with bright citrus and crunchy vegetables enlivening the tender fish.
Chicken confit at Yobo.
While Yobo is good at the light and bright, it’s just as good at the rich and hearty. A chicken confit, first braised then fried and coated in red chili paste, was double-rich and beyond tender. Potstickers are done in a thick, homemade-country style. The mung bean pancake combines the earthy and sweet, the garlicky and sour. Bi bim bap eschews crunchy vegetables for a version that is heartier, with wilted leaves mixing in among the yolk, sauce, crispy rice and tender seared beef.
Because it is run almost entirely by a couple, Yobo is the best sort of tight shop — like the early days of Bresca, Miyake Food Factory, or Schulte and Herr. Your server knows the food intimately, and things have a personal touch. Regulars might get off-menu surprises from the kitchen, or wines from off the list. Some of the most personal dishes, like the short-ribs with herbs and curry named for Sunny (the chef), are among the best.
Yobo’s cuisine says “Hey you!” It is arresting and rewarding. Rather than deinstitutionalize, the couple behind Yobo has produced a worthy new Portland institution (right next to an old one — Portland Stage). More couples should strive to produce something so distinctive and interesting. Sadly, every middle-class soul-mate marriage is alike and descends predictably into a grudging partnership for the production of high-achieving children with the proper enriching experiences, cognitive development, and screen-time discipline (and a mild anxiety disorder). Occasionally they look for a great meal over which to fake the old magic. Yobo is a great place to get one, and to remember that couples can do better.
Yobo | 23 Forest Ave., Portland | Tues-Sat 5-9 pm | Most dishes between $9–$15 | 207-536-0986
- Published in Food + Drink