(In First Look, we pay a quick visit to a new restaurant or bar in Central New York to give readers an idea of what to expect. Our food critics might visit these places eventually and give us their take, but we want to highlight what’s new in our area. If you know of a new place, send an email to [email protected] or call/text me at 315-382-1984.)
Cortland, N.Y. — This whole pandemic thing has changed the way restaurants do business, and it’s changed the way we customers eat.
Yori House, for example, is a new Korean restaurant in Cortland that got its start at the local farmer’s market here in 2017. Last year, owners Peter and Lee Han bought an old bar at the corner of Elm and Pomeroy streets, but Covid-19 forced them to open on Sept. 3 as a takeout-only restaurant. Their loyal customers from the market followed them in droves. They’d place their orders online, pick them up and leave. And they’d always come back. They sold out of food on the second day and had to quickly adjust.
The Hans finally opened their dining room a couple weeks ago, just as their to-go orders had reached an all-time high. On a recent Friday afternoon, just after they opened for in-person dining, the restaurant had no fewer than 12 meals constantly bagged and ready to go on shelves.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Many of us aren’t back to working in an office full time, so a 90-minute lunch hour since isn’t out of the question. Let me tell you, the 28-minute drive from Syracuse to grab lunch or dinner here is worth it. The ride back is even better because you’ll call a friend or two and tell them about what a unique Korean-infused meal you just had in Cortland, New York.
“During the pandemic, people started thinking more about what they eat: healthier, more flavor, better all-around,” said Christine Han, the owners’ daughter who’s been running the front-house since graduating from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. “My mom decided that we wanted to give people good portions at a reasonable price, but she wanted to give them fresh ingredients, food that’s made fresh every day.”
That’s what brought Bill Fortin of Cortland here. He’s the syracuse.com reader who called me a few weeks ago to say I needed to see for myself that Cortland has great ethnic food. Bill has a great approach to finding good restaurants. See, he spent much of his adult life traveling up and down the East Coast working on gas pipelines, and all the while, he appreciated good food.
“Whenever I got to a new place, I would ask the locals where to eat. When I heard the same place come up three or four times, I knew I had hit a winner,” he said. “In New York, if there’s a lot of cars at a restaurant, that means the food is good. When I lived in North Carolina, it just meant people were too busy to cook.”
You must try …
Thai Basil with Chicken ($12.95): This spicy stir-fry classic was the special of the day on my second (of THREE!) visit to Yori House. It features crushed chili peppers, fresh garlic, red and green bell peppers and your choice of chicken or pork. The Hans serve this, and most of their entrées, with a large bowl of white rice.
The description on the menu said it was spicy, but I wanted to be sure that it would satisfy my heat-seeking palate. “We can do whatever you want,” Christine said.
This Thai basil suddenly became slap-in-the-face spicy, but it remained tasty. Indeed, it had more chilis than most people could accommodate, but I could still enjoy the chicken, and the basil tasted like it was just plucked from the garden out back and tossed into the wok.
Spicy Pork ($12.95): The menu flags this with two “chili pepper” icons. I guess that means it’s supposed to be extra hot. We’ll see about that.
Lee Han starts by marinating thinly-sliced pork overnight in a spicy chili pepper paste. (Is there a better paste in this world than chili pepper paste?) She sautés the meat with bell peppers and cabbage. The meal arrived in about 4 minutes.
For something so seemingly simple, this plate has a flavor profile that will have you suspecting something else is in there. You just don’t know what it is.
To those who might want to sweat a bit more during your meal, I would suggest creating a puddle of sriracha sauce off to the side for you to scoop your chopsticks through on the way to your gullet.
Bulgogi ($12.95): This must be the Korean version of good Midwestern pepper steak. Chef Lee slices the choice beef extra thin and marinates it in a sweet soy sauce. She sautés the cow with onions and bell peppers.
Like the spicy pork, this is a simple dish with similar ingredients, but the flavor is vastly different. This is not spicy at all, and it’s a slightly more salty and sweet.
(Dear Lee Han: I grew up on pepper steak in Indiana. Yours is oh-so-much better.)
Chicken Noodle Bowl ($10.95): I’d like to thank all the chickens for their service in creating this fine pot of soup. It’s got to be at least a half bird per bowl.
Technically, this is a “chicken noodle bowl,” but it’s really a big-ass bowl of soup. It’s a cup or two of dark meat swimming in a savory broth. The carrot matchsticks, kale, onions and probably some other vegetables round out the flavor.
This soup so hefty that you will need both a spoon AND chopsticks to get it into your belly. Well, my 17-year-old son thought so and gave it a shot. It took him awhile to learn the proper “sticking” technique, but he got the hang of it after just a few minutes.
Keep in mind that we ordered this soup on an 85-degree Saturday afternoon, after a way-too-long baseball tournament game. We finished it. Every last drop. And every piece of kale. That’s how good this soup is. Imagine what how it will feel in February.
I’ll be here to find out; I’ll just leave the car running in advance of that 30-minute drive home. It’ll be worth it, just as it was in the second summer of Covid.
The venue: Yori House, 114 Elm St., Cortland. (607) 344-3444
Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Alcohol: Not yet
Credit cards? Yes
Parking: Plenty of on-street parking.
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