Published Sunday, June 9, 2013

I think of Bethel, a village of 2,500 in western Oxford county, as base camp for sorts for those pursuing outdoor recreation in the Mahoosuc Mountains of Maine. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find an upscale Korean and Japanese restaurant right in downtown. And it’s an excellent restaurant at that.

Cho Sun, open since 2002, occupies a rambling clapboard house on Main Street. Enter to find couple of front rooms with warm wood colors and beaded board trim, a collection of low and high tables with cushioned stools, and many Far Eastern touches. Cast a glance around to spy an unusual stringed instrument, a mask, a pair of Oriental vases, and more.

It’s not everyday you find an atmosphere that combines Maine mountain lodge style with subtly displayed antiques from the Far East. Despite the mix, you won’t find any cuisine other than Korean or Japanese at Cho Sun. And the blend of outdoorsy warmth and exotic elegance works just fine.

Warmth characterized our welcome, too. Our waiter was there for gentle guidance, offering samples without our asking and knowledgeable explanations when we did ask. We learned that the chef is Korean, so we mostly chose from those options.

Flat, crisp layers sandwiching a softer center of fermented cabbage salad, or kimchi, was the kimchijeon, or kimchi pancake ($9), a hearty starter. Add a dab of soy sauce if you like, to this delicious, slightly spicy, tomato-y, bottom-grilled, Korean-style pizza.

The restaurant’s mondoo ($8), or Korean steamed vegetable dumplings shaped round like very large tortellini, came four to a plate, with fresh and pliant dough. These were very good, and not particularly distinct in the filling department. If you enjoy Thai or Chinese dumplings, you will feel comfortable with this dish.

As is traditional at a Korean dinner, small dishes known as banchan were served before the appetizers and remained on our table throughout our meal. In addition to kimchi, we enjoyed three other vegetable-based treats, involving some combination of cucumber, carrot, daikon radish, bok choi, or cabbage and dressed with fish sauce, sesame oil, or ginger chili. Each small dish was distinctive, either sour or sweet or hot. Happily, banchan are complimentary and dishes will be replenished, if you desire.

Tea, too, was complimentary – you can choose between green or red corn – and our server encouraged this rather than trying to sell us other beverages. A gentle but informative waiter without a marketing agenda in a warm and tranquil setting serving vegetable-laden food? It felt almost Buddist.

We chose the red corn tea, made from roasted and caramelized corn kernels – it was hot, red, and subtly reminiscent of charred sweet corn.

Tender duck breast slices served with a lightly sweet mango sauce with carrots, bells peppers, and gently flavored wasabi mashed (my friend wished for more wasabi zing in these potatoes), sprinkled with sesame seeds may not have been fully authentic, but it was delicious nonetheless ($25).

Choose from beef, chicken, shrimp, calamari or tofu as the central protein in dolsot bibimbop, a traditional Korean mix served in a hot stone pot and that continues cooking at your table. Our slices of marinated and grilled chicken were served with charred shiitake mushrooms, spinach, carrots, and bean sprouts atop a sphere of rice, topped with a sunny egg that was just this side of cooked though. The entrée’s separate sauce, gochujang, was rosy and thin, distinctively sour with a spicy finish. This “everyday” Korean barbeque sauce is key part of the meal; add it to the hot pot to taste ($18).

As we neared the finish of this traditional dish, golden rice stuck together in the shape of the pot, a crispy and delicious nest under all the goodies. Break it apart and enjoy.

Out of sight from the upscale dining nooks are the bar and lounge situated at the back portion of Cho Sun. This casual area, dotted with vintage ski posters and low lighting, is separated from the front rooms by a long hallway festooned with Asian artifacts. It serves a full menu, and sometimes late-night sushi on Sundays. But in effect, Cho Sun has two personalities. Our experience remained in the front.

To cap off our meal, rather than ordering the tempura fried ice cream, and because we hadn’t tried any Japanese far, we ordered a house “tootsie Roll” from the maki choices. The specialty crab roll in a house dressing drizzled in eel sauce and sprinkled with tempura bits was sweet enough to be a very fine finish indeed ($10).

I’ve mentioned before in this column how one of the big pleasures of this job is discovering culinary surprises in out-of- the-way places. Cho Sun, with its excellent Korean cuisine (it takes up about three quarters of the menu), belongs on that small but growing list of special finds.

Nancy Heiser has been writing Dine Out Maine reviews since January 2011. She can be reached at: nancyheiser.com