The Red Lion Restaurant

On a busy street in Madison, Wisconsin, Red Lion Singapore Grill and Japanese Cuisine is in its second month of operation. Jeffrey Cui and his wife Jessica own and operate this brand-new restaurant in what is becoming an up and coming neighborhood.
Located at 515 Cottage Grove Road, Red Lion is in a prime location. The street has some of the old - the VFW, a small carry-out only pizza joint and an abundance of dive bars. It has the feeling of a small town in the middle of the city. However, right across from the Cuis restaurant is one of many recent apartment developments in the area, one of which will eventually hold the new public library. Importantly, the area will soon have new, hungry inhabitants, a boon for the Cui's.
Red Lion is small and quaint. Down a few steps from the main entrance and to the right is the sushi counter, while straight ahead is the kitchen and to the left the small dining area. In the main dining room magnificent photographs of the Singapore skyline cover the wall. If you are lucky enough to sit by the window, you will be just a touch below street level, getting a great view of the street – perfect for watching people and cars.

I sat down with Jeffrey and we chatted about his long history and interest in the food of Singapore. Jeffrey is a 5th generation Singaporean. His parents have ancestors from two different regions in China and their descendants have since lived in the city-state. Like the United States, it is common to find people from different cultures in Singapore. Jeffrey describes Singapore as a mixed culture, with inhabitants of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and British descent.

Jeffrey developed his love of food from his parents. His father was once a head chef for an upscale hotel, while his mother was a lecturer in a culinary school. Jeffrey has experience in many different types of cuisine – he told me he was the first Singaporean trained Brazilian passador chef in the city-state. He also became a pastry chef, which he attributes to luck. He was a server at a high-end hotel when the pastry chef had to leave for a few days due to a family emergency. Jeffrey assured him that he could fill in, as he had learned how to plate the pastries. When the pastry chef came back, he was so impressed with Jeffrey that he was able to get him a job as his assistant. From then Jeffrey was sponsored to go to culinary school and eventually become a pastry chef.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey tells me that the tropical Singapore climate and lifestyle did not suit him, and he yearned to go somewhere with a cooler climate. He visited a friend in New York City and that inspired him to make the move to the US. He has moved around many times since then, living in New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and now Wisconsin. He said he likes the quiet life in Wisconsin better than Singapore and even New York City. He explained to me that Singapore runs 24 hours a day and that is reflected in the businesses and people’s lifestyles.
In the United States, Jeffrey first started helping as a translator for restaurant owners. He also helped them manage their restaurants. Along with Red Lion, he also co-owns a restaurant in Missouri. Jeffrey and his wife finally moved to Madison in December 2018 after 6 or 7 years of living in Rockford, Illinois. A shooting of a police officer near his home in Rockford made the Cuis reevaluate where they wanted to live, and they decided to give Madison a chance. About five months after the move, the building for Red Lion became available. Jeffrey saw the for-lease sign the first day the space was available and he took the chance to start his own family-run restaurant in Madison.

The most difficult part of opening their restaurant was the amount of work they had to do to the existing space. Jeffrey and his wife had to put in some serious work before they could start operating their restaurant. The exhaust hood was coated in oil and soot. They spent six weeks cleaning the entire restaurant. They tore out the carpets and cleaned the kitchen until it was spotless. Finally, they opened Red Lion on July 28th, 2019.

However, Singaporean cuisine is a rarity in this part of the United States, which Jeffrey said was the second biggest challenge of opening the restaurant. Jeffrey is currently experimenting with different dishes to see what will stick with American tastes, before he puts more Singaporean food on the menu. He said he has focused on the Japanese side of the menu because he knows Americans are already familiar with it. Jeffrey cooks all the food, Japanese and Singaporean, but now has a sushi chef, Jeremy Liu, to make the sushi.

Still, Jeffrey believes that Americans will be open to certain Singaporean dishes, like Singaporean curry.
“I know Americans love curry,” Jeffrey stated.
Like its people, Singaporean food comes from many different cultures. The people borrow food and ideas from different cultures and make it into their own.
“Singapore is a mixed culture country,” Jeffrey explained. “People who live in Singapore, we treat everyone as humans- we don’t put race in our language and we don’t compare cultures. We mix really well together.”

That diversity is reflected in typical Singaporean food, from the curry to Hainanese chicken rice, which Jeffrey touted as one of the signature dishes of Singapore. Currently, Hainanese chicken rice is a rotating special on the menu, as Jeffrey determines what Singaporean dishes can be permanent menu items. As it can be expensive to obtain Singaporean food products, Jeffrey wants to make sure they are compatible with his customers before they are offered a permanent on the menu.

With the help of my partner, I tried some Singaporean dishes and sushi specialties at Red Lion. During our interview, Jeffrey said that he has tried to tone down the spice levels for Americans for some of the Singaporean dishes, but that he offers some sambal chili paste with dried shrimp to patrons who are up for the challenge. I was able to try some of this paste with the Singapore chicken curry that I ordered, which was the special of the day.

The Singapore curry, which is more of the consistency of a soup than Indian curry, is fragrant and delicious. The chicken is very tender and falls apart and the potatoes give the dish a nice hearty touch, perfect for a chilly day in Wisconsin. It is served with rice and interestingly, a small portion of a baguette, which Jeffrey encouraged us to dip in the broth. It is a wonderful combination of eastern and western practices – it is both a curry with rice and a soup with bread for dipping. The chili paste that he gives us on the side is certainly spicy, and for those who can’t get enough of hot sauce, this is a wonderful item to try. He advised us to mix it into the rice, and it packs a punch. The dried shrimp mixed in gives the dish a deeper flavor profile, and is a unique and savory flavor for those who are open to complex tastes.

We also tried the pork gyoza. They are offered as steamed or fried. I asked Jeffrey which he prefers, and he offered to give us half steamed, half fried. The dumplings were absolutely delicious. I preferred the steamed dumplings, as they were juicy to bite into. The fried dumplings were lightly fried and also very tasty. They came with a sesame soy dipping sauce, which enhanced all the flavors in the dumplings.

After that, we indulged in two signature sushi rolls. The chef presented both beautifully. The Red Lion roll has a very rich flavor – it contains cream cheese, avocado, lobster tempura and is topped with tuna and is wrapped in soy paper with eel sauce and spicy mayo. We also tried the Sentosa roll (named after the Singaporean island), which is exceptional. The roll contains crab, avocado, spicy salmon, and is wrapped in crab meat, topped with some crunch and spicy mayo. This roll is very decadent and is perfect for those who love crab.

We left Red Lion feeling extremely satisfied. The combination of food items is unique and different from other restaurants in the area. From talking with Jeffrey, this seems to be the theme of Singaporean cuisine – a mixture from many different cultures to form a delicious fusion.

At the end of the interview, I asked Jeffrey if there is anything that he wanted Americans to know about Singapore. He said, “Singapore is clean and beautiful.” Jeffrey has taken these high standards of Singaporean life and cuisine and transferred them to his restaurant. Although Singaporean cuisine may be new to the area, a food from one mixed culture to another will surely have something for everyone.

Visit:
The Red Lion Restaurant
515 Cottage Grove Rd.
Madison, WI 53716
Call Red Lion Singapore Grill by phone at 608-467-3018

About the Author:

Sarah Kuelbs is a UW-Madison School of Journalism graduate and food writer based in Madison, WI.

Korean Ssam Bar

Korea is now often in the media, and many Americans have consequently become interested in its food and culture. While a wide array of ethnic cuisines are available in Sarasota, Florida (a mecca for the arts, outdoor activities, and nature situated on the Gulf Coast) Korean Ssam Bar has attracted a loyal following since opening on March 22, 2017.

Yun and Yup Namgoong are the owners of this popular restaurant. Yun immigrated to Sarasota at age 17, moving from Incheon, South Korea, with her family. Her father, a master of Tae Kwon Do, had opened a martial arts academy in Sarasota a year before she arrived.

Yun attended Bayshore High School in Bradenton and worked part-time for the well-known beach-side restaurant, Sandbar, owned by Ed Chiles, son of former governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles. The Sandbar’s gorgeous location on Anna Maria Island and its iconic status in the area made this a terrific place for Yun to learn the restaurant business. She worked several years as a hostess at the Sandbar, chosen, no doubt, for this “front of the house” responsibility due to her outgoing personality and ability to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome.

Yun graduated from the University of South Florida. She was working for the State of Florida as a social worker when the opportunity to get into the restaurant business came her way. By then she had married Yup, who is a graduate of the prestigious Ringling College of Art and Design. They took over a Korean restaurant in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota, and successfully ran it for 11 years.

Yun and Yup learned through restaurant contacts that an Indian restaurant in Sarasota was up for sale. They seized this opportunity and Korean Ssam Bar was born. Yun left her job in social services and moved to the “back of the house” to take over cooking while Yup took over the “front of the house.” With his calm nature, he manages the busy restaurant with warmth and a quiet reserve that makes guests feel comfortable and welcomed.

The new restaurant’s name is a play on words based on Yun’s fond memories of the Sandbar. Ssam means “lettuce wrap,” a Korean specialty, and so Ssam Bar was named!

For the cooking, Yun drew on her childhood memories of food preparation in Korea. She is influenced by the home cooking of her grandparents, parents, and extended family. The recipes Yun has developed are traditionally Korean. She procures traditional Korean ingredients and makes all of her own sauces and condiments. Marinated meats are based on techniques that she learned from her family.

One recipe Yun remembers from her childhood is kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine—a traditional side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, known for its digestive and nutritional qualities. It is classified as a probiotic. With growing public interest in healthy eating, SSam Bar is recognized as a destination for local “foodies.”

At Ssam Bar, Yun prepares 15 heads of napa cabbage a week. Compare this to the 100 heads of cabbage that her family prepared each November in Korea. There, the tradition of burying the cabbage in the ground in earthenware containers was carefully followed. Kimchi-making was a family event and fostered social occasions at the start and the end of production. Often, a feast of pork and fresh kimchi was made to celebrate the beginning of the process. Since this was a winter staple, the kimchi had ice on it when taken from the ground in small quantities until it ran out in February or March.

While Yun recalls the first year of Ssam Bar as hectic and somewhat stressful, her golden rule of saying “Please” and “Thank you” to everyone working in the kitchen and her good helpers who “calm her down” are the secrets to her success. Now Yun enjoys the harmony of a well-run kitchen and is delighted to prepare home cooking for her many customers with the support of a great staff: Yup and their two children, daughter Bari and son Yho, who also help out.

Our group of four diners sampled many dishes and enjoyed them all immensely. The small, intimate dining room was filled with locals: students from nearby colleges, professionals, retirees, families with young children, and food aficionados.

Recently, a mother/daughter pair returned from a trip to South Korea. The daughter is a big fan of K-Pop music and they were happy to compliment Yun, saying that they missed her style of cooking while in Korea. They returned to Ssam Bar the day after they arrived home from their trip to share their travel and culinary adventure stories.

We enjoyed:

Red Wine by the glass/Cabernet Sauvignon
Barley Tea/Yun says its mild flavor is a favorite of the Queen of England!

Korean Dishes:
Kimchee Pancake Appetizer
Pork Dumplings Appetizer
Spring Rolls Appetizer
Stone Hot Pot/Bibimbap: Rice topped with choice of protein, or spicy squid, and a fried egg, in a sizzling stone bowl, usually mixed with Gochujang, the traditional Korean pepper paste
Black Bean Sauce with Udon Noodles/Jajangmyeon
Thin sliced Marinated Beef/Beef Bulgogi: The favorite dish sampled that night
Lettuce Wrap/Ssam with condiments: kimchi (fresh and aged), chayote and cucumber, potato. This item, while not officially on the menu, is available by special request

Two weeks later, we returned to Ssam Bar to taste a dish that is available, by order, at least a week in advance: Samgyetang/Ginseng Chicken Soup. It is a favorite dish in Korea, served during the very hot summer months…. perfect for a hot summer day in Sarasota! The recipe revolves around cooking a small chicken stuffed with ginseng, other herbs, sticky rice, and red dates. The recipe is said to have medicinal qualities. We were eager to sample it, as one person in our party had recently been hospitalized with digestive issues and might benefit from tasting this new dish. It is served piping hot. As the Korean saying goes, “Eating the hot soup is fighting heat with heat.”

We enjoyed the presentation when the condiments were lined up in front of us and the pot of Samgyetang presented at the table. We helped ourselves to the broth and pieces of the chicken, which fell off the bones. It is a simple, pleasing dish, with no salt or heavy spices. Adding the condiments and rice, served as sides, added spice, saltiness and extra flavor. We highly recommend this dish.

On our second visit, there were two long tables with 8 to 10 people in a party. Some of the other guests were local Koreans, a few regular customers, several business people out for an early dinner, and a curious vacationer.

Everything we sampled was made with care, presented well, and delicious.

When asked what the family does for vacations or breaks, Yun explained that her children’s best memories are visits to Korea. They enjoy going camping in the Korean mountains with Yup’s family. Part of the experience is to bring a stove to cook outside, and they sleep in tents.

Give Korean Ssam Bar a try. You will want to go back often once you taste Yun’s home-style Korean cooking.

Visit:
Korean Ssam Bar
1303 N Washington Blvd, Unit E
Sarasota, FL 34236
Tel: 941.312.6264

About the Author:
Sara Sinaiko is a writer living in Sarasota, Florida. Beginning in September, 2019, she is honored to serve as the Fair Food Program Development Director (ciw-online.org; fairfoodstandards.org).