Swish by Han
38 Wellington St. E.
$100 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
I don’t usually experience abandonment by servers in restaurants. In fact I’m not sure it’s ever happened before. Had I been dining with someone boring, I might have really minded. Or noticed it sooner. But half an hour after we stopped picking at our main course, we realized that our server had not been back to the table since she delivered it. Had I not previously had a fabulous dinner at Swish, I might have bailed out at that point, left a minuscule tip, and never gone back.
Another random person had come by once, early on, to turn down the gas on our vigorously boiling fish broth, but that was it. Considering that we had ordered a do-it-yourself main course, and that when we ordered we had made our ignorance of its rituals clear to our server, our expectations were piqued.
But no. We were on our own. The item in question is called “swish” and we had to order it because they’ve named the restaurant after it. “Shabu shabu” is a Japanese dish whose onomatopoeic name refers to the sound food makes when it’s dredged through the broth in a boiling hotpot. Korea, thanks to its shared history with Japan, does shabu shabu too – but in this restaurant they’ve done their best to translate the name to English, hence “swish.”
The server brought two plates of raw food and a steaming kettle of fish broth to cook it in. On the veg plate were zucchini, bok choy and mushrooms. On the fish plate were scallops, squid, shrimp and big New Zealand mussels. On the side was a small dish of sweet hot sauce. We cooked, dipped, ate. Boring process, boring boiled textures. Boring bland flavours. Then she offered us rice porridge or noodles to finish off. When I asked what kind of noodles, she said she didn’t know, but would oblige us by finding out. Her answer, upon return, was one word: “flour.” I might have liked to know what kind of flour (rice? wheat?) and what kind of noodles (thin? fat?) but it seemed best to give up.
Do they have dessert at Swish by Han? I don’t know but on neither visit were we offered any.
But our swish experience at Swish was by no means the restaurant’s whole picture. Pretty much everything else we ate there was scrumptious. Okay, they struggle with service issues – a couple of times, they had a cool-sounding dish of squash, cheese curds and kimchee on the specials blackboard, but one time I tried to order it they said it had sold out at lunch and the other time they said it’s only available on weekends. Heard of blackboard erasers?
But, service aside, we love all the other food! Berkshire pork pot-stickers are a lighter take on those frequently leaden dumplings: Fabulously delicate dough is browned but still tender (that's a good trick), stuffed with savoury filling and sauced with reduced chili-kissed pork stock. Wild-mushroom salad is king oyster and shimeji mushrooms with designer lettuce, sesame, a hint of soy, sesame oil, chili oil and dangerous little bird’s-eye chilis for big heat – charmingly served on a slice of log.
Soo yook is Beretta Farms’ naturally raised beef shank – an unsung hero of a beef cut – that they braise for 48 hours to tenderize, and then lightly torch to order, slathering it with crunchy mustard seeds marinated in rice vinegar and more designer lettuce in the soy and rice vinegar dressing on yet another pretty wooden platter.
Spicy pork-neck tacos involve small chunks of sweet/spicy pork whose texture resembles the tender chewiness of Chinese red-cooked meat. With the pork, atop small soft tortillas, are raw red cabbage, chipotle mayo, sour cream, queso fresco and fresh lime. It’s a divine combo, reminiscent of upmarket Mexican food.
But it’s high-end Korean. Bring on the kimchee. The difference between Swish by Han and the Korean joints at Bloor and Christie is in details like the kimchee, which they make in house, and very well, too, with more flavour than heat. And in the gorgeous room, full of grace: Brick walls with bright coloured art, a high ceiling, crystal chandeliers, thick wooden tables lacquered to a high shine.
It’s also in the likes of lobster bi bim bap for $18. In most Korean restaurants you pay about 10 bucks for their national dinner-in-a-bowl – rice with onion, carrot, zucchini, green beans, a raw egg on top and a chosen garnish such as beef or tofu. This bi bim bap blows them all out of the water. On the obvious level there’s the lobster, big sweet chunks of it. Less obvious, but no less wonderful, is the overall quality of this stone-bowl experience. The rice is crispy with a sesame undertone and the hot sauce for jazzing it up is house-made and interesting.
There are three kinds of mains for two: tabletop barbecue, the aforementioned swish routine, and ssam sets. You’re in a restaurant: Why not let them cook? The ssam set is beef, chicken, pork or eel served with marvellous accoutrements, to be wrapped in leaf lettuce with shreds of onion, carrot, zucchini and king oyster mushrooms with the sublime kimchee and equally terrific house-made hot sauce of complex flavours.
High-end Korean is a new phenom in Toronto and we’re looking forward to more. Swish by Han has done a good job jump-starting the trend. When the quality of the service matches the quality of the food, it will have truly succeeded.