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Food & Dining
Food & Dining

Posted on Sun, Apr. 10, 2005

Japanese restaurant aims for authenticity with heart

Inquirer Suburban Staff


A delightful new BYO in Collegeville, Bonjung Japanese Restaurant, takes its name from the Japanese words for "real" or "original," bon, and "heart and affection," jung. Housed in a former train-station warehouse with a corrugated roof and towering ceilings, Bonjung is spacious by Japanese restaurant standards.

Partly because it's designed to resemble a teahouse, the 89-seat restaurant is visually soothing with interesting details such as a door made of bare sticks and a large kimono spread wide on a wall.

In some ways, this is Japan Central.

Owner Gregory Shin, a former computer engineer who opened his first culinary venture in March, hopes to round out Bonjung's authentic cultural appeal by offering events such as Japanese cooking classes, origami demonstrations, and tea ceremonies. The first cooking class is scheduled for April 25.

Bonjung's cuisine is certainly authentic, especially with its focus on the sushi bar, where the specials - New Zealand red snapper and bluefin, on a recent night - typically reflect the whims and refined sensibility of expert sushi chef Yonemoto-san.

He is particularly adept at handling the sushi mainstays - tuna, salmon and crabmeat - without serving anything standard or Americanized. That's not as easy as it sounds - even sushi is no longer the instant crowd-pleaser in this era of grocery store rolls and ubiquitous Japanese eateries.

The kitchen offerings tend to stay close to the kimono, so to speak.

In other words, there's nothing here you haven't seen before, including the classic "i" dishes: hibachi and teriyaki. But these, too, are prepared with studious care and avoid the usual pitfalls - the grilled items being too dry, and teriyaki sauce too salty.

The chicken hibachi I sampled was served with three dipping sauces - a sweet type of vinegar, a bold ginger, and a doctored version of bottled Japanese hot sauce - that helped to enliven the meal with different tastes.

There is also tempura, another case study in Japanese artistry. The selection is small (four entrees) but shows off the kitchen's skills in flash-frying.

Judging from such tempura items as soft-shell crab and lobster tail, I suspect that an old boot could be tossed in the pan and it would still turn out with a feather-light crunch.

What makes Bonjung stand out from the other Japanese, Pan-Asian and Asian fusion restaurants and the ethnic-cocktail eateries that have popped up in recent years in the suburbs?

It's not necessarily the handful of Korean specialties offered; they're not even identified on the menu.

Again, in keeping with Bonjung's quick-to-please atmosphere, there's nothing strange or outrageous, no Korean fermented vegetables, red-hot stews, and spicy pickles.

Instead, the most popular and well-known dishes are served, including the classically named bi bim bap, a Korean-style casserole made with different stir-fried vegetables, meats, rice and hot sauce all mixed in together.

Bonjung is different partly because its large size and smooth operations (the service is quick and pleasant) give the impression that there's a large crew behind the scenes.

At the same time, it has the intimacy of many BYOs and family-owned establishments.

Considering its focus on fresh fish and seafood - and securing a sushi chef to prepare it - Bonjung is dependent on contacts.

Shin has them - through his brother, Leo, who has owned and managed a string of Japanese restaurants in Philadelphia.

Gregory Shin also runs the place with the help of his wife, Christine, an interior designer, and his sister-in-law Junee, who managed restaurants in Toyko.

The Korean touches here, including the displays of chocolate in clay pots in the back dining area, reflect their background as Korean natives.

One last thing: Japan doesn't really recognize many desserts - a sliced orange is a common offering - but Bonjung serves what might be described as the real sweets that the Japanese keep for themselves.

That includes Yakan, or sweet red bean jelly, and Mochi ice cream, a bonbon-like treat made of ice cream wrapped in rice dough.

It's incredibly sweet, but real and original.

Bonjung Japanese Restaurant

50 W. Third Ave., Collegeville Station, Collegeville.

Phone: 610-489-7022. Web: www.bonjungsushi.com.

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. for dinner; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. for dinner; Sunday, dinner only, 3 to 9 p.m.

The menu: This family-owned BYO serves authentic Japanese cuisine, with some Korean specialties. (The owner, Gregory Shin, is Korean.) In addition, there's a 10-seat sushi bar that serves specialty rolls and an extensive sushi and sashimi (sliced raw fish with dipping sauce) menu. Bonjung also has takeout and outdoor dining. Hibachi is offered, but without the floor show; the hibachi grill is in the kitchen.

I'll have another: Housed in a converted train station and warehouse, Bonjung is quite large by Japanese restaurant standards. Similarly, it has a fairly broad and diverse menu, with many offerings perfect for sharing, such as shrimp tempura, dumplings, and grilled and skewered appetizers. The entrees include noodle dishes, rice bowls, seafood specialty rolls, and vegetarian fare as well as traditional Japanese dishes including "hot pots" and katsu, or cutlets with special sauce.

Can't decide? Try one of the special combo dinners, described as an "exciting Japanese tray." It includes several Asian-style culinary hits, including a California roll, tempura, and the popular teriyaki. Save room for dessert; among the selections are fried bananas with homemade ice cream (enough for two) and Korean chocolate - unavailable elsewhere, Shin says. (He is planning to be your chocolate connection.)

How much: Appetizers, $4.50 (edamame, or soybeans) to $10.50 (seven pieces of sashimi); entrees, $11.50 (steamed rice with toppings) to $29 ("sho" combo dinner). All major credit cards are accepted.

How loud:Bonjung maintains a peaceful and reserved atmosphere.

Reservations: The place has been open only since March, but it's already drawing crowds. Reservations are recommended on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Children's menu: Yes, although you might want to leave the kids at home. With Bonjung's elegant and contemporary setting, you might have more fun without them.

Smoking: Not allowed.

Facilities for handicapped: Yes.

Contact suburban staff writer Catherine Quillman at 610-701-7629 or cquillman@phillynews.com.


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W 3rd Ave & Walnut St (50 Third Ave), 
Collegeville Station #220, Collegeville, PA 19426

610.489.7022 (b)                                       610.489.7023 (f)
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