Within walking distance of Ashland Plaza for a weekend event, my husband and I took an acquaintance's tip and tracked down a new Korean restaurant on the south end of town.
But familiarity rather than novelty greeted us at Lee's Cuisine in the Albertsons shopping center. Lee, of course, is synonymous with the local Bonsai Teriyaki Sushi restaurants: two in Medford and, until three years ago, a third in Ashland.
Kwang Lee sold the Ashland location, whose new owners were supposed to change the name, according to Lee's son Selby, but reneged on the agreement. Despite the falling-out — or perhaps because of it — Lee elected to open his latest restaurant in the former digs of a Mexican eatery, practically next door to his first foray in Ashland.
Still preparing a full complement of nigiri sushi and specialty rolls, the family is making its first area foray into Korean specialties at Lee's. Consisting of more than 20 entrees, the menu centers around bulgogi, noodles and the less familiar bibimbap: hot stone bowls of rice topped with vegetables, meat and usually egg. Lee's serves its version with a bottle of spicy sauce on the side.
If it's hot you're after, you shouldn't pass up Lee's bibimbap. The special bowls keep contents blistering for at least 10 minutes after arriving at the table. They're so hot, in fact, that a raw egg cracked on top of the main melange sets up and finishes cooking when diners mingle it with other ingredients.
I selected the seafood bibimbap ($12.99) while my husband, already a fan of Lee's sushi, ordered two rolls — Rock Star ($13.99) and Cherry Blossom ($14.99) — from the specials menu.
Diners also receive a complimentary array of traditional Korean condiments: fish cake, red beans, pickled radish, potatoes, sprouts and the ubiquitous kim chee for our table. I noticed other tables sported some different items, small portions in separate saucers.
As usual, the hot food arrived before the sushi, but as previously noted, bibimbap doesn't suffer from a few minutes repose on the table. If anything, the rice develops more of a crunchy crust where it comes in contact with the hot dish, somewhat like the bottom layer of paella.
Composed of clams, mussels, squid, bay shrimp and scallops, the seafood was a contrast in sizes if not exactly flavors and textures. A bit less cooking would have retained the delicacy of each. I loved the addition of egg, however, and would happily order this dish without the seafood.
The sushi was beautifully presented in the style for which Lee is known. Playing on the theme of springtime, crisp microgreens adorn the Cherry Blossom roll's rosy slices of salmon and tuna.
The Rock Star roll is decadently deep-fried and topped with more deep-fried baby lobster. Maybe Lee's spicy sauce or tempura batter overwhelmed other flavors, but the lobster could have been any crustacean. The tuna, though, was characteristically fresh and distinctly flavored.
Because worldwide overfishing is giving tuna a bit of a bad rap in restaurant circles, I vowed next time to try Lee's broiled mackerel ($11.99), a fish not often seen on American menus but considered a sustainable alternative to tuna.
Sushi aficionados will be pleased to see Lee's serving uni — that delectable unmentionable taken from sea urchins — which doesn't sell well enough in Medford to earn a place on the menu.
Mindful of an Ashland audience, Lee's pared down Bonsai's East Medford steak selections to baby-back and short ribs, as well as a ribeye dinner for two served with traditional Korean side dishes, including "egg quiche" for $39.99.
Although a few traces of Latin decor remain, Lee's boasts an impeccably appointed sushi bar that invites counter dining and, once it receives a liquor license, sake sipping. Open less than a week, the establishment was awaiting the state's approval Sunday to serve alcoholic beverages.
The Ashland restaurant does not accept checks, but does accept Visa, Master Card, Discover and American Express.
— Sarah Lemon