By 8:30 p.m. last Friday, snowbound Toronto had lost its appetite. Babysitters cancelled. Streetcars idled. The going-out set, weary from shoveling and warned about the state of the roads, hunkered down, housebound. Otherwise popular restaurants sat empty but for their lonely staff.
But at Oddseoul, a new Korean-American-themed restaurant and snack bar on Ossington Avenue, hungry customers crushed along the bar and around the high-top tables, inhaling bulgogi cheesesteak sandwiches, griddled white-bread hamburgers and meaty Asian chicken wings, guzzling PBR and Negra Modelo as they yelled jokes and stories and flirtatious insults over the beat of old-school funk.
As people left, you could hear them on their iPhones, calling in reinforcements. “Go before it’s impossible to get a table!” they shouted. “I’m serious!” The floor staff could hardly keep up with the crowd.
For all the frustrations of eating at Oddseoul – the lack of a website, phone number or posted business hours, the noise of the room, the squishy communal tables – the place has been packed solid since it opened in late November. On Mondays and Tuesdays, it’s jammed with chefs and restaurateurs, food geeks, DJs, artfully underemployed locals. Later in the week: Hannahs, Jessas, Adams, moneyed twentysomethings, older couples (who would shatter if you called them that). Everyone is nicely buzzed here, or about to be.
You can pig out for $25 if you want to. And the frustrations melt away in face of twenty-something chef and co-owner Leemo Han’s deliciously, deliriously nuanced cooking.
Oddseoul is a Korean-filtered homage to the vernacular foods of Philadelphia, where Han and his younger brother Leeto, who runs the front of house and bar, grew up. For his cheesesteak, Leemo Han stuffs banh mi buns with bulgogi-marinated ribeye beef, griddled onions, American cheese, kimchi and Kozlik’s triple-crunch mustard. The first bite comes like an electroshock. Your teeth sink through the toasted crust into white-bread softness, into smoky, honeyed, seasoned meat, into creamy fat and mayo and the pop of mustard seeds, like Big Mac sauce doing battle with Korean spice. The second bite is drippy, crunchy, overwhelming to neural pathways. Those cheesesteaks cost $5, less than many fast-food hamburgers. They’re the second-best sandwich in Toronto, to my mind.
They’re second-best because Mr. Han’s “The Loosey” is even better. The Loosey is modeled on the Pennsylvania sliced-bread hamburgers that the Han boys grew up eating. The patty, made from a blend of brisket and ribeye, is dark, soft and meaty. The bread: fat-sliced, sesame-crusted challah seared in butter.
He layers in a touch of roasted kimchi, dill-pickle slices, griddled onions, mayo, the crunch of chopped iceberg lettuce. Yet the special sauce is its killer ingredient. Mr. Han sauces The Loosey with buttery, yolky hollandaise that’s thinned with kimchi juice instead of lemon. It’s a five-bite indulgence, a stunned smile and sticky fingers. People erect statues of people who make sandwiches like this.
The Han boys were born in Toronto, but in the mid-1980s, the family moved south to chase the American dream. (They found it; their parents built a booming beauty-supply business.)
Leemo got into trouble after high school. Immigration kicked him back up north. He took a dishwasher job at Edo, on Eglinton Avenue West, to support himself. “I tried to work really hard and wash dishes really fast,” he said in an interview. “If I had any time I went to the chef and asked him, ‘Is there anything you need me to do, cut things or whatever?’” He progressed through Edo’s kitchen, then to Japango, near City Hall, where he cut fish at the sushi counter.
The family followed Leemo back to Canada. In the summer of 2009, the brothers opened their first restaurant, a new-Korean spot called Swish by Han on Wellington Street West. The place took off.
Oddseoul is hardly the first restaurant in the city to serve kimchi or Korean-style lettuce wraps, or to riff on American-style junk-food classics. Leemo Han did not invent kimchi hollandaise (I found a recipe from 2011) or the bulgogi cheesesteak (a food truck in Philadelphia called KoJa has already staked that claim). His gift, though, is for making them taste like more than elevated rip-offs of pre-existing rip-offs.
His cooking is its own thing, on its own terms, in many cases better than the original – it’s Jay-Z reinventing Annie’s It’s the Hard Knock Life.
Take his tempura prawns, which come extra crisp, with black sesame seeds and a pink sauce that’s made with Japanese chili paste, Kewpie mayonnaise and flying-fish roe. Any similarity to Filet-o-Fish sauce is purely coincidental, Mr. Han says with a smile in his voice. It is genius, whatever it is.
He marinates the chunks of pork neck in his pork neck lettuce wraps with sweet, spicy daeji gogi sauce and then smokes them over a bowl of charcoal that he keeps on the griddle, a ghetto smoker. He serves the works alongside superb Chinese-style fried rice. (Also available: wraps with pork belly and shrimp, cumin lamb or beef shortrib. You can get lettuce to wrap them or rice paper. The platters cost $25 and serve two.)
The squash poutine is made from hunks of buttercup, peel on, tender-fried, under Japanese curry, with kimchi cabbage, gooey cheddar curds, dark (vegetarian!) gravy, scallions and mayonnaise. That is genius, also.
Mr. Han’s menu is in flux for now. He plans to introduce a larger take on The Loosey when they start lunch service in the next few weeks, as well as a dessert (there are none at present) combining sweet-potato doughnuts, a Sesame Snaps glaze and some type of house-made ice cream.
But if you’re up for this kind of place, you should get there before then. If I could, I would call you on my cellphone and shout, “Go before it’s impossible to get a table! I’m serious!”