HEART AND SEOUL
A Korean version of Parwana taps into the uncompromised flavours of its chef’s homeland.
WORDS SIMON WILKINSON PICTURE MATT TURNER / SIMON.WILKINSON@NEWS.COM.AU
KOREAN food, the trend-pickers said, was going to be bigger than the last big thing. With the lightness of Japanese, and some added spice and tang, how could it miss? A few years on and the jury is still out. Not much has caught on beyond DIY barbecues, fried chicken and rice in a heated stone bowl.
If you want to dig deeper, and I strongly recommend you should, then make a booking at Chef Kim. This unassuming restaurant, just off Greenhill Rd in the affluent east, has the wonderful, honest charm of our best ethnic restaurants. It’s like a Korean version of Parwana — and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.
Both places are headed by humble, self-taught women, whose cooking taps into the uncompromised flavours of their homeland but also a universal theme of nurturing and the pleasure gained from feeding others.
In the case of Chef Kim (the person rather than the place), a lifetime of cooking for friends and neighbours grew into the dream of owning a restaurant in her adopted country — a greater challenge than normal because she speaks little English.
In one way, perhaps, it has helped her stick to what she knows. Slurp a steaming spoonful of her chicken and ginseng soup for instance, and you can be sure she wouldn’t do it any different at home. A large earthenware hotpot is filled to the brim with what begins as a light, clear broth. Submerged just below the surface, hidden beneath a flotilla of shredded spring onion, is a whole chicken that fits snugly in its container.
Using only a serving spoon as instructed, we attack the small bird and it breaks apart easily to reveal a stuffing of sticky rice, garlic cloves, ginkgo and more. Even the smaller bones have been rendered soft enough to eat, if desired, along with flesh that is still perfectly moist. And as our soup becomes an increasingly messy collection of bits-and-bobs, the stock builds in power as if the missing ingredient has been added to a magical potion that delivers on the menu’s promise of an energy boost.
Its hard to do justice to Chef Kim in only one visit unless eating with a gang of mates. While the entree selection is small — seafood or Kim chi pancake, dumplings, prawns and an expertly fried conglomeration of shredded sweet potato, leek and other veg — there
are many paths to go down from there.
Opting for the chicken means missing out on the grilled choices, which are for a minimum order of two. The beef short rib we see in passing glistens in its house-made soy marinade and smells magnificent. It’s accompanied by a round platter split into compartments holding 10 different side serves: glazed lotus root, seaweed salad, pickled radish, steamed egg and much more. Next time.
Bossam (pork belly) with spicy radish, and the grilled beef short rib with accompaniments. Picture: Matt Turner
The “bossam” is a less elaborate affair of soy-braised pork belly slices, pickled radish (fabulous), cucumber and a spicy-sweet soybean paste laid out to make DIY wraps with the leaves from a wedge of iceberg lettuce. The peanuts sent out as an extra nibble end up in there as well and the combo has enough crunch and zing to keep us rolling.
Desserts include twin scoops of green tea and vanilla ice-creams dropped on beds of sweet red beans and, strangely, a chocolate mud cake. Twists of fried ginger biscuit have the snappiness of a fortune cookie and are doused in a clear honey syrup.
Neither the decor of Chef Kim’s long and narrow dining room, nor the bland music, add much to the experience, but the sole waitress does a magnificent job. Left on her own on what was meant to be a quiet Wednesday night, she is run off her feet, but still finds time to explain the intricacies of everything from tackling our chicken to a fizzy fermented rice drink.
Modest little Chef Kim is the year’s first big surprise, with its heartfelt, home-style Korean cooking a genuine revelation. Now I get what the fuss is about.
OWNER/CHEF Hyun Ji Kim
FOOD Korean ENTREES $6.50-$8.50 MAINS $19.50-$35 DESSERT $7.50-$8.50
DRINKS Short wine list, all local, with plenty under $40. Also check out Korean drinks including plum and raspberry wines. BYO $13
Chef Kim is open for