Shilla Tastefully Blends Korean, Japanese Flavors

----------------------------------------------------------------- Restaurant review

XX Restaurant Shilla, 2300 Eighth Ave. ($$ 1/2) Lunch ($7-$9) 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner ($9-$17) 3 to 10 p.m. daily. Sushi bar. Full bar. Major credit cards. Nonsmoking area. Reservations: 623-9996. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Restaurant Shilla, a sophisticated mix of Korean and Japanese specialties served with style and grace, sometimes seems like a place that time - and traffic - passed by.

Situated on busy Denny Way at the corner of Eighth Avenue - right across from Denny Park - it is known and patronized by a steady clientele of Asian businessmen and Korean-American families, and a scattering of others who have come to appreciate its corner sushi bar, Korean barbecues and "bul gho gi" (the spelling varies from place to place), "fire beef."

Outside, cars drone past; inside, the sound system plays a series of serene melodies from the 1940s and '50s, from Mantovani to 1001 Strings, with an occasional welcome side trip to Ellington.

Shilla opened 10 years ago, a tasteful conversion of a former motel dining room into an upscale, almost elegant Korean cultural oasis. All of the large, brocaded booths have silver platters covering built-in gas burners as table centerpieces - for individual grills and hot pots.

The restaurant was pretty accomplished when first opened by Sammy and Regina Koh in 1985. Through the decade, if anything, it has gotten better.

It is the only restaurant in Seattle that combines - exclusively - Japanese and Korean cuisines (a few pan-Asian places like the Asia Grille combine a broader but less authentic blend). And Shilla sometimes combines them on the same plate: like Korean Kolbi Beef and a fine Japanese Tempura ($8.50 at lunch).

Boldly seasoned cuisine

Korean cookery, because of a history of conquests and occupations, borrows from a variety of influences - Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian and Manchurian, for example. But in general it is an assertive, boldly flavored (at times aggressive) cuisine, with hot and sharp elements melding with sweet, sour and mellow tastes. Some Westerners find it almost addictive; others skirt through the menus selectively. (I have a friend who served in Korea as an intelligence officer 40 years ago and who has not eaten kimchi - hot, pickled vegetables, usually cabbage - since the Korean war; I love the stuff.)

Shilla makes several kinds of kimchi in house. Their basic hot white cabbage, flecked with red peppers, is crisp, clean and potent without being drastically aromatic or incendiary. It works well as a taste-bud-awakening appetizer or as a complement to any of the traditional Korean dishes.

It might not be traditional, but with a well-run sushi bar only 40 feet away, I like starting with a shared plate of either selected individual pieces ($2.50 to $4) or for a party of three or four, one of the restaurant's Sushi Platters ($10.50 to $16), like the Mutsu Sushi (10 pieces of the day's best choices) or the Take Sushi (eight pieces of your choice, plus a Japanese cucumber roll; $12.95).

Grill-'em-yourself ribs

Kalbi Beef Ribs ($15.95) are lean, boneless, thin-sliced cross-sections of the short ribs, marinated richly in ginger, garlic, pepper and sesame, then quickly grilled. At dinner, you do the grilling yourself at the gas-fired, tabletop barbecue, then - with assorted kimchis, vegetables and dips - wrap them in red lettuce leaves as flash-fired finger food.

Other meats get similar treatment: Dak "chicken" Gooy ($11.95); flank steak, Sokum Gooy ($14.95); pork ($13.95); calamari ($11.95); Tiger Prawns ($13.95); beef tongue ($13.95); and Kop Chang Gooy ($12.95), for "Slices of beef intestine aggressively seasoned, thus spicy, for those who are adventurous."

I am adventurous, but Kop Chang is too Gooy for me. Maybe next time.

Try the Bi Bim Bap ($8.95 or $10.95 for the more exotic version). It sounds quite percussive, but it's a compelling dish, with rice, marinated vegetables, sliced beef and a whole fried egg stirred together with sesame oil and chili sauces. It's a great cold-weather dish. The more expensive Dolsut Bi Bim Bap comes with exotic vegetables and roots and is served from a hot stoneware pot.

Nang Myun ($10 to $12; hand-pressed buckwheat noodles in a clear beef broth, served hot or cold with meat and vegetables) is a closer to a typical Korean dinner. It's usually shared, but works fine alone at lunch.

For those to whom a genuine Korean dinner seems daunting, Shilla's tempuras are light and appealing; a complete range of teriyakis are authentic, tasty and harmless.

The place deserves a wider audience. And will get one; the Kohs plan a second restaurant in Redmond early next year. (Copyright, 1995, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.) John Hinterberger, who writes the weekly restaurant review in Tempo and a Sunday food column in Pacific, visits restaurants anonymously and unannounced. He pays in full for all food, wines and services. Interviews of the restaurants' management and staff are done only after meals and services have been appraised. He does not accept invitations to evaluate restaurants.