Upscale Korean is big in L.A., but that's about it in North America. In Toronto, Korean food has thus far been limited to bi bim bap (the cheap and cheerful meal-in-a-bowl that is mostly rice) and Korean barbecue (cooking your own dinner on the grill on your table).
Koko! Share Bar, where the menu steers clear of such cheap signature food, aims to take it up a notch.
A Japanese/Korean hybrid, it's a very interesting restaurant - first because it's Korean with style and second because of the shared ideology.
In this establishment, there are two long tables where diners are expected to sit beside strangers. And there is some insinuation that the restaurant expects us to talk to strangers and maybe even share food with them. Now go ahead and call me a fuddy-duddy, but I am not even a little bit interested in sharing food with strangers. Eating is an intimate act. I prefer not to do it with people I don't know.
On one visit, though, a guy who I'm guessing might be the owner enthusiastically relates the tale of two couples who came into the place separately, were seated beside each other somewhat reluctantly and then informed him via e-mail later on that they were going out for dinner together the next week.
I'm happy that he's happy that he got to play Cupid. But I remain skeptical about the charms of sharing my table space with strangers. Actually, I'm more than skeptical: I want my honey all to myself when we go out for dinner, which, by the way, can be wonderful at Koko!
The menu, evenly divided between sushi/sashimi and Korean fare, hits a lot of high notes. Having studied under Vancouver sushi master Hidekazu Tojo, chef Shin Aoyama has a way with raw fish. His ebi is translucent sweet raw shrimp draped over rice, while his maguro is the tenderest tuna.
Aoyama crafts entertaining rolls such as butterfish wrapped around fragrant green garlic stems with a little bath of tamari and lemon. He stuffs tuna roll with kimchee for excitement.
Among other highlights, binnaga is big, fat chunks of tender raw tuna nicely dressed in a not-too-sweet drizzle of maple syrup, soy and balsamic, while tai is very fresh raw sea bream fanned out petal-style, topped with black-dyed flying fish roe that has a satisfying crunch in the mouth and adorned with drops of shiso leaf oil.
Even something as commonplace as seaweed salad gets special treatment in chef Shin's hands: To the usual green seaweed he adds both purple and white seaweeds, which marry well with pink grapefruit in the graceful dressing.
Of the things Japanese, only beef tenderloin roll fails. This is barely seared beef tenderloin wrapped around rice, sushi-style, with garlic stems. It sounds great, but the beef is so tough that one has to swallow each roll in one bite because it defies chewing.
Is beef a blind spot for chef Shin? Could be, as the beef in his bossam is kissin' cousin to shoe leather. Bossam is Korea's answer to China's rainbow chopped in crystal fold: They both bring together various fillings that you roll up in lettuce leaves. In principle, it's fun food, but the execution at Koko! is wonky: The proteins include horribly overcooked, dried-out spicy chicken, equally overcooked shreds of Korean barbecued beef and slow-roasted pork belly that is its usual fatty self.
Sides are thin shreds of raw onion, rice and (sometimes) rolled-up blanched Napa cabbage leaves that can substitute for lettuce as wrappers. A dipping sauce (spicy mayo with ponzu, salty dried shrimp or spicy Korean) rounds the dish out.
The other problem with bossam is the price. Our server that night was good at upselling, advising that we order both bossam and sushi. But 50 bucks worth of bossam helped crank our tab to $181 for two people, including very little wine, tax and tip.
It seemed way too expensive for Korean food and three sushi items in a small basement resto that, however charmingly decked out with lacquered wooden tables and a rough wooden ceiling, is nonetheless cramped and very noisy thanks to the sound bouncing off all the hard surfaces.
Nonetheless, one would be wrong to write off chef Shin's Korean chops because he does harm to beef and chicken. Among other things, he adds value to traditional Korean dried-anchovy broth, enriching it with stock made from grilled chicken.
This upgraded stock is a zingy base for the spicy Napa cabbage soup appetizer with flavour deepened by buckwheat sprouts. It's even more exciting as the spicy base of seafood bouillabaisse hot pot, a main course featuring perfectly (i.e. barely) cooked black cod, mussels, shrimp and scallops. This is kin to his side of Napa cabbage braised in kimchee, which offers classic Korean bite lite - ideal for the non-initiate.
Like many other hot spots these days, Koko! doesn't take reservations. And the tiny room is often full. Its clever formula is courtesy of owner San Kim, who hasn't run a restaurant serving the food of his homeland before. But Kim's résumé, which includes involvement in various capacities with Ame, Ki, Edo and Blowfish, tells us that he knows better than most people how to make a basement resto doing Korean/Japanese into a great success. Koko! has his Midas touch.
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