by Suzanne Podhaizer
At Banchan, a new Korean restaurant in Montpelier, the first thing visitors receive is a pot filled with roasted corn tea. In the cup, the liquid is amber, with a sweet and nutty flavor. The dining room walls are painted pale green and deep teal, both of which are reminiscent of the ocean. On one wall hangs dozens of lacquered bowls—most a rich red, accented with black and gold—and a single round mirror.
Banchan, which opened to the public on March 27, is notable for several reasons. Firstly, it offers a cuisine that is barely represented in the Green Mountains: The restaurant—which is named for a collection of small, shared dishes—joins Naru in Williston and Shin-La in Brattleboro to form a trio of Korean restaurants, all located along the corridor of Vermont’s major highways, separated by many miles.
The eatery is located in the former home of Philamena’s on Elm Street in Montpelier. The capital city is also home to Wilaiwan’s, a much-lauded Thai restaurant that offers highly spiced lunch dishes on weekdays; Double King, an exceptional Chinese pop-up that does business out of Kismet; two Vietnamese restaurants; two casual Chinese spots; a Japanese restaurant with a focus on sushi and sashimi; with a second Thai eatery to round out the selection. In a New England City with a population of fewer than 8,000—and around 45 eateries in total—the proportion of Asian restaurants is startling.
But most importantly, the food at Banchan is simply lovely. Hewing to the ideal of purchasing food from area farms, the owners—a pair of sisters and their mother—offer dishes that are beautiful to look at and exciting to eat.
Order the Ssam-bap Jun-shim and receive a tray holding a bowl of bone broth garnished with slender enoki mushrooms and scallions, a cast iron dish filled with your protein of choice—spicy pork, in my case—purple sticky rice, a collection of sauces including sweet and spicy gochujang, and a cup filled with crisp lettuce leaves. The diner wraps the meat and rice in a leaf before eating.
Bi-bim-bap—white rice, vegetables and meat topped with a seaweed-laced egg—requires less hands-on participation. For an extra dollar, the same combo can be served in a special Korean stone bowl. Another variant of the dish, kim-bap, which is made with similar ingredients but is rolled up in seaweed like Japanese maki, can be ordered in the restaurant, or purchased as takeout for a neat and easy meal on the go.
How are the namesake Banchan ? On one snowy day in April, the three dishes we received included kimchi, slices of vegetable pancake, and gamja jorim, a dish of sweet and salty braised potatoes. The potatoes alone would merit another visit.
Banchan currently offers breakfast and lunch, and soon, will also begin serving dinner. The evening meal will include the same dishes that are served midday, plus some enticing “dishes for sharing,” which are printed tantalizingly on the menu. Had I been able to order the Korean fried chicken wings, beef and kimchi sliders, seafood pancake, or braised pork belly taco buns on my first visit, I would have done so in a heartbeat.
A liquor license, which will allow Banchan to serve cocktails made with soju—a Korean liquor—as well as sake, beer, and wine, is forthcoming, too. In the interim, nobody should miss the maesil ju: plum juice blended with still or sparkling water (try it sparkling).
When you dine at Banchan, where many of the dishes are meant to be shared, it’s ideal to bring along a good friend. On this occasion, I shared my fare with William Alexander, a winner of the National Book Award and faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Will is a colleague of one of Banchan’s owners, An Na, a novelist whose most recent book, The Place Between Breaths, was released on the same day that her family’s restaurant opened. If you find that you wish to dine there, but are alone, perhaps you can bring a copy of the book along, to keep you company between sips of soup, and bites of spicy pork ssam.