Name: Zoomak Korean Tavern
Location: 52 Alexander St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Modern Korean
Prices: Han Sang lunch special ($20); shared plates, $5 to $40.
Additional Info: Open Tues. to Fri. for lunch (from 11:30 a.m.) and dinner (from 5 p.m.); Sat. dinner only. Reservations recommended. Takeout: UberEats and DoorDash.
Here is a heartwarming tale for the holidays.
Two talented young chefs with a desire to bring something new to Vancouver open a modern Korean tavern in the middle of a pandemic.
For months, their lovely dining room – spread over three cozy floors and minimally appointed in white, brass, pale wood and ghostly dried-floral bouquets – remains largely empty.
It certainly doesn’t help that they are located on a side street in Gastown, which has been cratered by the overdose crisis.
After restaurants are reopened for indoor dining, the secret slowly begins spreading by word of mouth: the exquisite $20 Han Sang lunch special is one of the best deals in town.
Without any advertising or media push, evenings get busier throughout the summer. They open a small patio, seducing new customers one sexy sesame-infused whiskey sour at a time.
A year later, in mid-October, Zoomak Korean Tavern celebrates its first anniversary – and it becomes almost impossible to get a reservation without two weeks notice.
Okay, the long waitlist might not warm everyone’s cockles. But in a year that was mired by too much misery, this is a great success story, and should be celebrated.
The restaurant’s owners are Eric Choi and Bobby Shin, who also co-owns the lauded Maru Korean Bistro in North Vancouver – which, although less polished than Zoomak, took baby steps in the same modern, fusion-y culinary direction.
Here, Mr. Shin runs the front-of-house operations. Although he has struggled to find staff, the service on three visits was very sweet and polite.
The prices have been kept extremely reasonable for the quality of the food. Mr. Choi, who runs the kitchen, has an impressive résumé. After culinary school, he cut his teeth at the fine-dining Cioppino’s Mediterranean Kitchen. He must have impressed chef-owner Pino Postero, who later sent him to England and found him a job at the three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn, owned by Albert Roux.
“At Botanist, I worked with Pacific Northwest cuisine, blending all types of flavours with local ingredients,” Mr. Choi explained by phone.
“That’s what I’m trying to do at Zoomak, but the flavours are primarily Korean. I want to do something that other Korean restaurants here are not doing.”
Steak tartare is an excellent example of his melded influences. Lean eye of the round is cut to order and perfectly diced with sharp knife work. His technique is flawless. Tender, bouncy and pleasantly served at room temperature, the meat is tossed in gochujang, Parmigiano and horseradish for funk, extra umami and a slight hit of heat. Then it is beautifully plated with egg yolk and yam strings.
You will have to arrive early for the famous Han Sang lunch special, which features 10 small dishes – all drawn from the regular menu – plus soup, rice and (for an additional $5) choice of protein.
Mr. Choi only prepares 12 to 15 orders a day. It’s first-come, first-served. And there is often a lineup outside the door before the restaurant opens at 11:30 a.m.
Gorgeously arrayed on a wooden tray, the dishes might include house-fermented kimchi, creamy custard, silky pork cheek, melting soft beef shin and outstanding Korean fried chicken.
For the latter, Mr. Choi uses a Chinese frying technique, employing potato starch mixed with oil and egg white as the batter (instead of cornstarch), for a delicate, long-lasting crisp.
If the lunch special is sold out, you won’t go wrong with jjam bbong, a traditional noodle dish, but one with an interesting lineage. The spicy pork and seafood broth gets its dark-crimson colour from gochugaru, a dried chili powder that is sweet and smoky with a gentle heat.
But this hot, steaming bowl, chock-full of mussels, shrimp and charred vegetables, is actually a Chinese-Korean dish. It was created by Chinese immigrant restaurateurs, who had to adapt their cooking to local palates. It’s kind of like the Korean chop suey.
If you’re just stopping in for a drink at night, there is great selection of creative cocktails, local and Asian beer, soju, sake, Japanese whiskey and locally made makgeolli – a milky, lightly sparkling rice wine.
Whatever your poison, they would all go swell with the stellar ban-chan side dishes and snacks. The crispy kombu sprinkled with sugar on a creamy bed of miso hummus is utterly addictive.
For a more substantial meal, try oysters fried in a crunchy fluff of panko breading. It’s served with an herbaceously bright tartar sauce that Mr. Choi used to make for staff meals at the Waterside Inn.
His pork potstickers are a work of art. Mr. Choi steams the succulent pork dumplings in a young-rice slurry (rather than the typical cornstarch), which anchors them on a skirted pedestal of thin, crispy tuile.
If you are very hungry, the bossam wrap is a plentiful DIY platter with firm tofu and meltingly tender pork belly that is roasted to a crackling crisp along the edges (in most restaurants, the meat is boiled).
There really isn’t anything else like Zoomak in Vancouver. Damso on Denman Street has long been an innovator, but the food and setting is much more casual. PiDGin has always featured some great modern Korean dishes, but it’s only a small part of their pan-Asian repertoire.
The closest comparison would be Raisu or Kingyo, the wonderful Japanese izakayas.
Similar to those restaurants, Zoomak has successfully wooed a loyal Korean following with its authentic flavours, but also appeals to a broader clientele.
Mr. Choi and Mr. Shin have fulfilled their vision with flying colours. The lineups and waitlists are well deserved.
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