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Restaurant Tours: Soju's Michael Manning cooks to remember

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Michael Manning, a bond trader, might never have gotten into the restaurant business if it hadn't been for his sister. Lesli Doughty, known as Poni, worked in bars and restaurants, and about three years ago she convinced him that they should open a Korean place together.

Their mother, Chung-koo Lee, came here from Seoul in the late 50s. She went to Purdue and met George Manning, a Viennese native whose family had fled Austria during World War II. They got married and moved to Chicago, where George started a pesticide company. Lee wanted to make sure that her kids had a taste of her homeland. "Just about every week my mom took me and my sister to the Korean places on Lawrence and Lincoln," says Manning. "I remember liking kimchi and kimbop [sushi] a lot."

Doughty, who'd tended bar at Crobar and Smart Bar among other places, was well-known on the local club scene and acted in local productions as well, having majored in theater at Columbia College. In 1993 she married Alan Doughty of Jesus Jones and the Waco Brothers. But she suffered from a congenital heart condition. "She was born with a hole in the ventricle of her heart," Manning explains. "The doctor who delivered her said she had a death sentence of about 30 years. She was so proud that she never used her condition as a crutch in life."

Flush with cash from trading Treasury bonds, Manning got a good deal on a building on North Avenue that had been a Pentecostal church. "We believed that the younger crowd in that area would be adventurous enough to go for tons of spice and garlic," he recalls. "That's what really makes Korean food distinctive." Manning credits his sister with transforming the dilapidated building into Soju--an intimate storefront decorated in industrial hip with touches of ancient Korea.

Manning never planned on a career in cooking, though while attending prep school in Colorado he "apprenticed as a table chef in a Japanese joint and learned how to cook quickly for 20." Instead, he says, "I always wanted to make big bucks." Nevertheless he moved into the role of chef temporarily. With help from their mother, Manning and Doughty cooked up the modest menu--28 items in all. "We picked the all-stars, making sure that these wouldn't be too far-out for non-Korean palates," says Manning. They used family friends as guinea pigs. Much of Korean cuisine reflects the country's geography--it's a peninsula with mountains in the north and streams and sea coasts abundant with fish in the south--and the ingenuity of a people who learned to cope with the harsh winters and waves of famine. Kimchi, the national dish of cabbage pickled with peppers, ginger, and garlic, shows a typical way of preserving fresh produce (and meat) for the cold months. Koreans' love for dumplings and pancakes--mandu and bindae duk on Soju's menu--mirrors the predilection of their Chinese neighbors for food that can be steamed or fried, then dipped in flavorful sauces. Kimbop is a con-cession to the taste of the Japanese, who colonized the peninsula in the first half of the century. And of course Koreans are noted for their fondness for beef: Soju has its versions of kalbi (barbecued short ribs) and bulgogi (grilled sirloin strips). Another well-known dish, de rigueur at pan-Asian eateries these days, is bibimbop, a rice and vegetable medley topped with a fried egg, served cold at Soju. Manning has included several tofu dishes as well, the most pungent of which is suun-dubu, hot enough to wow even the taste buds of jalapeno fans.

"I'm sick and tired of misconceptions about Korean dishes," he says. "I've had friends from work at the Board of Trade asking weird questions: 'Are you having dogs for dinner?' Or how they're afraid to eat entrails. Korean food has far more subtlety and variety than that. And definitely no dogs."

It took much longer than planned, he says, but the opening of Soju (named for a Korean vodka) in August was a momentous occasion for the family. Unfortunately, Doughty's health had worsened, exacerbated by a pregnancy and unrelieved by open-heart surgeries. A few weeks later, Manning remembers, tears welling up in his eyes, "she fell next to the kitchen. I carried her out in my arms and drove to the hospital." Doughty went into a coma and never came out. She died in late September at the age of 33.

Manning has finally settled on a chef after a couple of tryouts--"it's not easy to find someone who can cook Korean and understand what might turn Americans off"--and he's set to add "more fish dishes and California maki" to the menu. He still relies on his mother to supply the assortment of side dishes, from kimchi to bean sprouts, that round out a full Korean meal. "My sister had always said that heavy use of garlic shouldn't be an issue. Look at how America came to enjoy Italian cooking," he says. "Sooner or later, she told me, Americans will appreciate what Korean cuisine has to offer."

Soju, 1745 W. North, is open from 6 to 10 Tuesday through Thursday, 6 to 11 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9:30 Sunday; it's closed Monday. Call 773-782-9000. --Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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