As Boston weather turns hot and sultry, your thoughts may roam to classic summertime foods like fried clams and steamed Maine lobster. While I often dream of New England clam boils loaded with littlenecks, chourico and linguica, and of August’s local corn and tomatoes, I’m also fascinated by hot-weather traditions in other cuisines. One of those is naeng myeon, the cold-but-spicy noodle dish beloved by Koreans in the summer. That happens to be a specialty of Bab Korean Bistro, a shiny new spot that opened near Coolidge Corner.
Cold and spicy may strike some American palates as odd, but when the mercury climbs many traditions favor cool foods with sweat-inducing chilies, like Thai som tum, Sichuan cold noodles and Peruvian ceviche. At Bab, naeng myeon features a tangle of skinny, delightfully chewy noodles made of buckwheat flour served in a frigid broth. The mild one, mul ($13), can be punched up with dribbles of hot mustard and rice vinegar, while the spicier bibim ($14) is plenty fierce as is. The latter features a soft-boiled egg, thick squares of tender beef brisket, slices of cucumber and apple and a huge dollop of a fiery sauce of chili paste, aromatics, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. The interplay of sensations here is beguiling: savory vs. tangy vs. sweet; capsaicin fire battling the icy broth; the tender textures of egg and beef and vegetables contrasted with those insistently chewy noodles.
One expects a place with rice in its name to do decent versions of bibimbap, and Bab does not disappoint. Haemul dolsot bibimbap ($15) is the standout, a mix of squid, shrimp and clams tossed with carrot, zucchini, shiitakes and iceberg lettuce in a soy-based sauce; let the rice get crisp, chewy and caramelized in the hot stone pot before stirring. Korean barbecue offerings lack the fun of tableside grilling, but options like moksal ($19), grill-charred slices of pork in a savory, fiery marinade, are tasty if somewhat meager in portion. Adventurous diners should sample dwaeji sundae gukbab ($15), a meal-size soup with thin slices of pork, chunks of dark, umami-rich blood sausage and twists of pork intestines into which you dump rice, scallion greens and as much chili paste as your heat tolerance allows. Your enjoyment of this dish will probably correlate to your love of chitterlings, which here carry a faint barnyard whiff.
One needn’t love offal to graze happily on Bab’s smaller dishes, like the simple, delectable casserole that is corn cheese ($6), corn kernels and diced sweet pepper in a mayo-based dressing, topped with shredded mozzarella. Tteok bokki with bulgogi ($11) is a fine rendition of the ubiquitous Korean snack-bar food, a plate of tubular, chewy rice dumplings tossed with springy fish cakes, boiled eggs and scallions in a vivid gochujang sauce, topped with a pile of grilled marinated rib-eye. Fried mandu ($9) are beef turnovers with a crunchy, skillful fry job and a side of dipping sauce. Bun—round, fluffy, steamed wheat flatbread that’s wrapped taco-like around various fillings (typically a protein, cucumber or lettuce and a sweet sauce) and served in pairs—are terrific, notably the galbi (beef short rib, $10) and mushroom ($9). Jeon, a big savory pancake crisply browned and served with a dark, soy-based dipping sauce, is a tremendous shareable plate, especially the haemul pa version ($10) loaded with scallions and bits of seafood. The simple stir-fry that is mushroom bokkeum ($11) with wood ears is tasty enough, but a little skimpy for the price. Plates of fried chicken ($15-$16) with three sauce options are generously sized; we enjoyed the sweet, lightly-fiery yangnyeom ($15) and the also-sweet, soy-flavored ganjang ($15). Be warned: These are not the crisp, twice-fried chicken parts found at Korean fried-chicken specialty joints, but a pile of crunchy chicken nuggets, soggy in spots from oversaucing.
Every meal here begins with a complimentary four-dish serving of modest, not-extraordinary banchan, typically kimchis of cabbage and daikon and salads of broccoli and soybean sprouts, and ends with the gift of a cunning little cornmeal fritter in a sticky honey glaze. You might pine for a cold beer or sake with this food, but Bab offers only bottled sweetened teas, flavored seltzers, fruit juices and American sodas ($2-$3). We were grateful for complimentary jasmine tea, served in a serious-looking, heavy iron teapot.
The room is a cheery 40 seats, spare and crisp with friendly service that generally hits its marks, though it can get a little harried at the busiest hours. Bab appears to be the latest in a long line of Northeast Asian restaurants in Coolidge Corner: a little sleeker and pricier than its rougher competitors to the north in Allston, bringing a useful mix of familiar standbys leavened with a handful of traditional, lesser-seen dishes, and delivering on flavors pretty consistently, but on value more haphazardly. Still, its splendid rendition of that chilling-hot naeng myeon might be reason enough to visit in the coming dog days of summer. ◆
Bibim naeng myeon
Haemul dolsot bibimbap
Tteok bokki with bulgogi
Haemul pa jeon
Bab Korean Bistro, 1374 Beacon St., Brookline (617-383-5575); Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11:30 am-10 pm; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 am-10:30 pm; Sun., 11 am-9 pm; Liquor: None; Reservations: No; Parking: Metered street spaces and nearby public lot