Toronto’s best Korean food: Chris Nuttall-Smith makes his picks
Move over, sushi. Now there’s something sexier. The new Korean cuisine is exciting, modern and worth crossing town for
National cuisines, like drunk-driving starlets, get the reputations they deserve. Korean food—dependably rough-edged, cheap and fiery in Toronto’s first-wave Korean restaurants—has suffered a serious perception problem since it first appeared near Christie Pits in the early 1970s. Korean expats ate Korean food. Starving, steel-gutted U of T students ate Korean food. The rest of humanity got along quite happily without it.
That started to change about 10 years ago, when South Korea launched a sustained and successful campaign to become a major cultural exporter. What began with film and TV—including several food-obsessed soap operas that drew massive audiences across Asia—soon trickled down to dinner, and as a new, more cosmopolitan generation of Korean chefs began to refine the cuisine, the gastro-weenies of the world took notice. In London, Korean went high-end, and in New York, David Chang, of Momofuku fame, created a hybrid Korean–French–Southeast Asian style that has become one of the most influential forces in the business. Over the past few years, this culinary renaissance set down in Toronto, too, hidden—or hidden to non-Koreans, at least—in plain sight between the all-you-can-eat bulgogi joints and bibimbap houses where serious foodies would never have dared to dine.
Tofu Village-House of Soon Tofu opened a few months ago on Bloor ’s Koreatown strip, just east of Christie, tucked innocently between a cellphone store and the Metro Theatre, the city’s crumbling home of vintage porn. The restaurant’s simple decor is cleaner and fresher than its competitors’, and its culinary aspirations are significantly higher, as well. Where much of the food on the strip caters to a quantity-focused crowd (nearly everything at a place a few doors down, for example, costs exactly $8 after tax), at Tofu Village the owners have thrown presentation and quality into the mix.
We start with thin, golden haemul pajeon—seafood and scallion pancakes stuffed with chopped octopus and shrimp—that come crisp and sizzling on a cast iron plate. The flavours and textures are exhilarating: the meaty, chewy-tender octopus, the slap of onions, the savoury depth from the seared egg and rice flour batter, the liquid-centred crunch of the just-picked watercress served with them. The kimchee is made fresh every day, so it’s gentler than the usual, and the spicing is geared more to western palates than gojujang-accustomed ones. We eat clear, nutty, refreshing chapchay—sweet potato noodles—stir-fried with vegetables and sesame oil, and an incredible cold soup served in a stainless steel bowl with buckwheat noodles. It’s the best Korean on the block.
A week later, I’m driving with a couple Korean friends up Yonge Street north of Steeles, where the strips of half-empty hookah lounges and over-illuminated kebab shops give way to ESL schools, bars filled with jet-setting Asian kids, and long stretches of tiny restaurants fronted only with blocky Hangul script. Every new immigrant community moves out to the suburbs over time, and in the case of Korean-Canadians, north Toronto and Thornhill have been the beneficiaries of the demographic rule. The GTA’s 60,000-strong Korean population is growing far faster than the overall average, and the Korean restaurant scene in the city’s north, like the people, is hybridizing and modernizing. The area is an enormous lab, with new micro-restaurants opening too quickly for even the most hard-core Korean junkies to keep up.
We pass a shop that specializes in tiny grilled squid, and another that does buckwheat soup. There’s a ginseng chicken stew joint, a hand-cut noodle shop, a seafood pancake place, a storefront advertising bacon-style grilled pork belly, a couple of shops that do only Korean bar food—izakayas, sort of—and another where people go for the tabletop charcoal grills. A few of the restaurants here serve Korean moonshine from plastic jugs, if you know how to ask (it’s called makali; best to go with a Korean). Turbo Lounge plays CFL and UFC matches and serves green tea cocktails and Chivas, creamed corn and kimchee. There’s a sports bar called Hell’s Chicken that’s known for its Korean fried wings. Most of the best places are less than two years old.
We stop at Janguh Plus, a modern grilled eel specialist. The food doesn’t come heaped the way it does at old-guard restaurants, and instead of long-simmered mash-ups, the colours, flavours and textures here are fresh, nuanced and distinct. We have the pork first: it’s been brushed with a sweet chili barbecue sauce, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and set, like a minimalist still life, on a large square white plate with a delicate daikon and carrot salad, plus steamed Chinese cabbage leaves that we use to roll up the works. The barbecued eel comes sauced and sliced with the same care. It’s just fatty enough, gorgeous tasting, striped with tidy grill marks and served with a stack of palm-sized perilla leaves to use as wraps.
We ask the owner, a friendly middle-aged man, who’s doing the cooking. His wife is the cook, he announces. She taught herself. She was a computer programmer until they opened the restaurant last June.
My favourite place by far, and the restaurant where I ate one of the most satisfying meals of the past year, mixes a casual mom and pop aesthetic with a made-from-scratch ethos that few top-tier western chefs could be bothered to match. Cho Dang Soon Tofu, set in a former sushi shop in an out-of-the-way strip mall near Islington station, makes its own soft tofu in-house every day. The difference between Cho Dang Soon’s fresh tofu and its competitors’ store bought stuff is a little like the difference between Kraft Dinner and handmade duck-egg tagliatelle, particularly when it’s just breaking the surface of the deep red, mellow and still boiling soon tofu jiggae—tofu and kimchee stew. Soon tofu is a national dish of Korea, and though the broth is made by reducing well-aged kimchee and water, the taste of the best ones is profound: meaty depth, chili heat, a nick of sourness, a brilliant, warming base made only more complex when you crack in a raw egg, which turns it voluptuous and creamy-rich as it cooks.
But the tofu is what really grabs you—here it’s as white and pillowy as fog, quivering and custardy and impossibly delicate, but still big-flavoured, and it dissipates almost instantly in your mouth. I can hardly think of a more perfect winter food. We ate plenty else there: impeccable little yellow croaker fish that arrived straight out of the fryer, so molten and delicious that we had to exhale madly to cool them as we chewed; a seafood stew of clear vegetable broth, jammed with mussels, shrimp, tufts of enokis and hunks of pine mushrooms. They would steal the show at a lesser place, but I couldn’t get my composure back after the stew.
The bill for dinner came to $62 for three people, with drinks, tax and a generous tip, and as I paid, I couldn’t help thinking that while this old-school, rough-and-ready-looking place, which opened a couple of years ago, was the best of them, each of the dozen Korean places I’d been to, from modest to modern, had been pretty great. And all of a sudden I wasn’t sure what had changed more over the past decade: Korean food or the rest of humanity’s willingness to give it a try.
681 Bloor St. W., 647-345-3836
9625 Yonge St., 647-258-1000
Cho Dang Soon
5130 Dundas St. W., 416-234-1161