Just opened: Koko! brings casual Japanese and Korean fare to Yorkville

Just opened: Koko! brings casual Japanese and Korean fare to Yorkville

Unexpected ingredients add creativity to Aayama's menu (Photo by Signe Langford)

One of Yorkville’s newest residents is, surprisingly, a relaxed, sharing-style restaurant of unpretentious and affordable Japanese and Korean fare. Called Koko!, which is Japanese for “here,” the business is the brainchild of Sang Kim, who recruited Shin Aoyama as head chef (Aoyama studied under Hidekazu Tojo, one of Vancouver’s great sushi masters and the owner of Tojo’s).

Kim, whose impressive résumé as a restaurateur and consultant includes Ame, Ki, Edo, Lil’ Baci, Fellini’s Shoe, Tasty and Blowfish, admits that serving the food of his homeland is new, but he’s confident. “I have a top chef, and we’re not going to be pushing the envelope too much. We are going to be quality and accessibility driven. We’re not doing exotic modern Korean cuisine.”

It was a consulting gig that brought him to this tiny, 44-seat subterranean Yorkville spot formerly home to Little Tibet. He was hired by Veronica Joo (she once owned Issmi on Avenue) to turn the space into a sake bar. “But I believed she would fail,” says Kim, so he convinced her to bring him on as a 50 per cent partner and hire Aoyama.

Aoyama’s menu has all the expected elements—miso, tofu, matcha, daikon, ponzu, kimchee—but there are surprises. Wild-caught yellow fin might be paired with kalamata olives or rapini in a “modern roll,” and barbecued beef ribs are done “L.A. style,” a thin cross-cut of short rib, well marinated in Asian aromatics and sweetened with honey.

The dishes are meant to be shared. “Korean food, by its very nature, is communal. It means you are at home,” explains Kim—hence the two harvest tables lining one wall. But are Yorkvillians ready to share their shabu shabu with strangers? Hey, you never know. Kim’s enthusiasm is contagious, and his ethos is backed up with a promise. “Everyone who comes in here, from the exterminator to a celebrity, will be treated the same. Everyone is special, mysterious, fascinating, and I am here to serve you. Watch me!”

Koko!, 81 Yorkville Ave., 416-850-6135.