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Manager Seunghee Hur mixes a cocktail at JINBAR in Calgary on March 18, 2021.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

  • JINBAR
  • Location: 24 4 St NE, Calgary
  • Phone: 587-349-9008
  • Website: jinbar.ca
  • Price: $5-$24
  • Cuisine: Contemporary Korean food
  • Atmosphere: Fun, cool and relaxed
  • Drinks on offer: Cocktails, beer and wine
  • Best bets: Crispy chicken skin, wedge salad, sweet and savoury fried chicken, honey butter corn and chips pizza, soft serve with brown sugar tapioca pearls
  • Vegetarian friendly? Yes
  • Additional infomation: Minimal options for gluten-free diners and open for dinner service only (seven days a week).

At this time last year, if I had heard a person say something to the effect of, “You can’t travel the world, so why not travel through food?” I likely would have rolled my eyes. Yet here we are one year later and it’s one of the only things many of us can do to escape. It’s practically all I want to do.

With that sentiment in mind, anyone who’s spent a bit of time in South Korea may feel transported while spending an evening eating and drinking at chef Jinhee Lee’s restaurant, JINBAR. Since opening in November, the charismatic eatery has garnered a reputation for sinfully delicious Korean-style pizzas and fried chicken.

Being an industry veteran since her days at Hotel Arts’ Raw Bar, followed by a chef de cuisine role at Foreign Concept and her near-winning stint on Top Chef Canada Season 6, Ms. Lee is not only a household name in Calgary, but in all of Canada. Many would argue that the chef’s reputation for creating dynamic food precedes her, especially when it comes to elegant, highly composed plates of food. With JINBAR, though, she leans into her love of comfort food, and it’s fun to watch the chef have, well, fun with her food.

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Sweet and savoury fried chicken, wedge salad and sweet corn pizza with gin cocktails at JINBAR.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The space itself – on the cusp of Bridgeland, just off the corner of Edmonton Trail and Memorial Drive – has a long history within Calgary’s food scene, most notably operating as the award-winning Italian restaurant Il Sogno from 2000 to 2015. Since then, it has had four restaurants: Whitehall (2015-17), Elwood and the Rabbit (2018), Waalflower Kitchen & Cocktails (2019-20) and now JINBAR.

After a rotating door of concepts, it seems as though Ms. Lee’s restaurant is the one that is sticking, and I am happy to see it.

Upon walking into the space for the first time, I was thoroughly impressed with how it felt. Subdued lighting, an upbeat playlist and plenty of small groups of people chattering at high-top tables in the bar area – separated by copious plexiglass, of course – help set the tone for a fun night.

The cool purple glow of a neon sign behind the bar reads “Cocktails & Dreams.” It has caught my eye on every visit; the statement somehow feels so fitting, even to be lucky enough to dine in a restaurant during these continued odd times.

A sleeper hit on the menu here is the wedge salad.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The wine list here is concise, but complementary to the menu’s primarily salty, fried eats. Over the past year, I’ve had minimal dirty gin martinis out on the town, so it’s a treat to sip one here that is perfectly balanced with just enough vermouth.

I keep mentioning the word fun, but it is truly the best way to describe a dinner at JINBAR. The menu is full of salty, crunchy, saucy, cheesy creations that deliciously run the gamut. There is plenty to try here that you won’t find anywhere else in Calgary, let alone the entirety of the Prairies.

Starting with the fried chicken skin, it’s hard to go wrong with these crispy, fatty shards, especially when dipped into a slightly tangy jalapeno cream-cheese dip. Following that, a small bowl of Brussels sprouts – also fried – brim with flavour thanks to an umami-heavy vegan “xo” sauce and further depth from a topping of fried shallots.

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Brined chicken is pounded out, cut up, coated in breadcrumbs, fried and served alongside fried rice patties as “popcorn chicken” with a soy dipping sauce. It’s hard to pinpoint all of the spices in the mix that both the chicken and rice patties are tossed with, but Korean red pepper chili flakes play a pleasantly spicy part.

This seems like a good time to mention that there are only a handful of light dishes on the menu and vegetarian dishes are even more scarce.

The ahi tuna crudo is a refreshing stunner. Thin slices of tuna sit happily in a bright yuzu and soy vinaigrette, topped thoughtfully with chives, radish, tobiko and green onion. In some ways, this dish feels like an ode to the chef’s past culinary work where the devil was often in the details on the plate. At JINBAR, the crudo serves as a palate cleanser of sorts.

With refreshing bites in mind, a sleeper hit on the menu here is the wedge salad. Unassumingly tucked into the side-dish menu, you can easily glance over it. Chunks of cool iceberg lettuce are dressed generously with a cream dressing made with yeongyeoja – a pungent Korean mustard with wasabi-like effects – and topped with radish, pickled onion and cherry tomatoes. A must-order.

On to (more) fried chicken and pizza, I say!

Korean fried chicken is readily available in most major Canadian cities, so there is a benchmark to compare with and Ms. Lee lives up to it and surpasses it. Made with 12-hour marinated boneless chicken thighs, on all of my visits here I have had no qualms about devouring the appropriately thick battered chicken tossed in sauces such as honey garlic butter or jalapeno soy.

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The one dish that particularly transports me back to my travels in South Korea – and, more specifically, my late nights of eating and drinking in Seoul – is Ms. Lee’s pizzas, in particular the honey butter corn and chips pizza. A relatively thin-crust pizza is topped with rich alfredo sauce, plenty of mozzarella, even more corn kernels and thin pieces of jalapeno. Once baked, the pizza is garnished around the crust with house-made potato chips and finished with honey garlic butter.

Soft serve ice cream is served in a vintage tea cup and studded with warm brown sugar tapioca pearls.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Corn is a very common topping on pizza in South Korea, but seldom one you’ll find on a pizza in Canada and, furthermore, it is rarely the star ingredient. Sweet, salty, fatty ... it’s something that can only be described as oddly delicious.

I highly recommend ordering it.

Though I have never been anything less than very full after a night at JINBAR, I would consider myself a fool to not spoon into some soft serve for dessert. Served in a vintage tea cup and studded with warm brown sugar tapioca pearls, each bite of this creamy, cool finish whisks me away to my travels, but this time in Taiwan.

I guess travelling through food isn’t so bad after all.

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