2382 Dundas St. W., Mississauga
$80 for dinner for two with beer, tax and tip
I was never a very good student of history because the rote memorization of facts and battles lacked context for me. Why bother, I thought, to remember stuff that has no apparent bearing on one's reality? When the dots connect, though, history gets some taste. To wit: Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 until 1945. During the occupation, much of Korea's agricultural land was adapted by the Japanese to provide export food for Japan. This resulted in most of Korea's rice being shipped to Japan and in food shortages occurring in Korea. The country's next calamity was the combo platter of the Cold War and the Korean War, which kept both North and South Korea suffering and hungry until the 1960s.
In the sixties, moreover, Koreans started chowing down beef and pork. In 1961, their annual per-capita consumption of meat was 3.6 kilograms a year. It went up to 11 kilograms a person in 1979 and to 40 kilograms in 1997.
All of which explains what's on the menu in the Korean restaurants that are popping up all over the Greater Toronto Area. There is the downscale Koreatown on Bloor Street between Bathurst and Christie, there are many and nicer Korean restaurants near Yonge and Sheppard and there are the various suburban enclaves where Korean is becoming the flavour du jour. But every Korean restaurant seems to reflect its history in precisely the same way: Meat, meat, meat. And with a binational Korean/Japanese menu.
Thanks to its wannabe luxe comforts, my current favourite is Miga Korean and Japanese Barbecue in Mississauga. The big dining room channels a nice suburban rec room through its low ceiling, brick walls, fake wood panelling and high chairs for the kiddies. There is a low, recessed stainless-steel grill in the middle of each table, with a sprinkler system and fan overhead, and a waitstaff call button in case you're feeling lonely or confused.
Some of the waitstaff wear headsets with mikes, so if your kal bi is starting to smoke or your spicy chicken is sticking to the grill, just press the call button and - Shazam! - someone responds. I'll bet you wish some downtown restos had the servers on an electronic leash.
As with every other Korean resto I've been to, Miga starts out with amuses such as steamed spinach, lightly marinated buckwheat and mung bean sprouts, white sweet potato cubes tossed in sweetened soy and fiery kimchee (chili-pickled cabbage). Then comes rice soup, a gruel that might have turned David Copperfield's crank, but to my spoiled-brat taste buds has no taste. Like the Chinese congee, its taste is, perhaps, too subtle for the untutored palate.
Then comes fab corn salad: sweet corn niblets in a mysterious white dressing that is way more fun than mayo. With it comes Japanese pancake, which is Korea's answer to Italy's frittata - a thin omelette filled with shrimp, squid and green onions. Where Italians cook their frittatas as slowly as possible to avoid browning, the Korean chef (with his historical Japanese influences) browns the pancake to gild the lily.
As if to celebrate no longer having to export their rice to Japan, Korean kitchens also do "stone bowl," which is one of rice's best incarnations: A stone bowl goes into a hot oven with a base of rice in it, topped with the garnish of your choice. The hot bowl causes the rice on the edges to develop a delightful crispiness; thanks to moisture supplied by the (usually generous) garnishes, it becomes crisp/moist rather than crisp/dry. This is true at Miga, where we feast on stone bowl topped with raw mushrooms, seafood, zucchini and sweet peppers.
But the crème de la crème of the Korean kitchen is classic Korean barbecue. To start with, they light the recessed gas grill in the middle of the table. The basic BBQ offerings include kal bi, beef short ribs that have been marinated overnight in soy sauce with lemon, kiwi, apple, garlic and red wine. Sweet soy, garlic and acid do very good things to tenderize cheap meat.
It is traditional to eat the meat in Korean BBQ by wrapping it in lettuce with the many condiments they bring, some of which are more fiery than others. When the waitstaff ask whether you want salad or lettuce with your BBQ, do not make the mistake of ordering salad, because then they won't bring the lettuce for wrapping. Iceberg lettuce cuts the sweet, the hot and the grease and supplies happy crunch.
Thin-sliced decent steak, meanwhile, grills up fast and tender. Next is very, very spicy chicken, and pork too spicy to taste. Then our very nice and very helpful waitstaff put thin-sliced squid rings on our grill and cook them. I find the squid as problematic as the chicken and pork - far too spicy for my wimpy Western palate. Plus these particular squid rings are likely frozen from Thailand. They have no squid taste, but can be considered adequate fuel. Same deal with very big green-lipped mussels and big shrimps. The sliced oyster mushrooms, though, are impeccably fresh and taste only of themselves.
I would advise majoring in beef on the BBQ. As for potential worries about one's grilling skills, the waitstaff will, if it's not too busy (i.e., if it's early in the evening), cook it for the gringos, deftly slicing meat with long-bladed scissors. They also change the grill three times during dinner so as to avoid the health (and palate) risks of cooking on a charred surface. If it's later in the evening or when it's crowded, though, you're on your own and will need that little black call button. By 7 p.m. on weekends, people are lined up out the door. Which just goes to show you: Miga's kal bi is among Korea's finest.