Word of Mouth: Vit Goel ToFu

Wonderful meal-in-a-bowl soups

The soondubu at Vit Goel ToFu arrives looking like something out of the witches' scene in Macbeth, a tiny black cauldron in the midst of a boil so roiling, it's actually sputtering.

When it settles down, finally, you crack the raw egg that's brought out with the dish into the bowl, letting the hot, red pepper broth, teeming with cubes of soft, custardy tofu, cook the egg. What happens next is one of the fascinations of eating soondubu, a process that asserts the primacy of texture in eating — in this case, soft, gelatinous texture — and delivers a culinary illusion so good, the kitchen at Citronelle would be envious. The egg takes on the consistency of the tofu in the bowl, which was, to begin with, the consistency of a soft boiled egg.

It's magic in a bowl, in both senses of the word. There's nothing else I'd rather eat on a cold, gray day than one of Vit Goel's meal-in-a-bowl tofu soups.

Soondubu is the focus of this L-shaped, blond-wooded soup parlor, housed inside what looks like an abandoned elementary school; you access it by traveling the length of a corridor full of boutiques and prying open a wooden door. The dining room lacks style and drama, perhaps, but it does convey a remarkable sense of serenity, as if eating a good, restorative bowl of soup really is akin to an act of meditation; even the keening Korean pop on the sound system does nothing to dispel this feeling of having wandered into an oasis of calm and order. Fittingly, the service is the antithesis of pushy; you have to flag your waitress — they're all women — down to get a beer, and you may find yourself with your hand up in the air for a while, like a frustrated taxi-hailer in the midst of morning traffic in Manhattan.

The menu is small, by the standards of most Korean restaurants, with their casseroles and barbecues and seafood pancakes: Eight varieties of soondubu, plus excellent Korean short ribs (thinly sliced, sweetly glazed, dusted with sesame seeds and served on a pile of sauteed onions on a cast iron skillet), tasty bulgogi, and a couple of stir fries. Every order, of course, comes with an assortment of panchan; I love the spicy bread-and-butter pickles, and the kimchi is as good as it gets, firm and fresh and full of pungency and heat.

The reason to come, though, is the soondubu. And it's reason enough to make this a part of your regular dining out rotation. The menu invites you to customize your spice level with each bowl. The gradations of heat go from — and I love this, a bit of inadvertent humor but telling, somehow, for a place that dares you to find it and dares to serve up such a specialized menu — "spicy spicy" to "white."

-From Kliman Online, February 5, 2008.