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681 Bloor St. W. 647-345-3836 and 8362 Kennedy Rd., Markham 905-415-0077
$35 for dinner for two with tax and tip. Awaiting liquor licence
In addition to other (less salutary) plans, the Korean government is investing significant funds to popularize Korean cooking in North America. There's a big conference about it at the University of Toronto on June 10. Which might strike a Toronto foodie as strange. For do we not already enjoy Koreatown, the delicious strip of Bloor Street west of Bathurst where kimchi and bulgogi are rather more ubiquitous than burgers 'n' fries? And, in less concentration but not fewer in number, do we not also know and enjoy the many Korean restaurants along Yonge Street near Sheppard?
Perhaps it's upscale Korean they feel needs promoting. While Los Angeles has wonderful up-market Korean restaurants, they have not caught on in Toronto. The Korean restos here tend to be informal, unfancy and cheap - often downright schleppy. Which must explain the instant popularity of Bi Bim Bap on Eglinton. For years we've been eaten our bi bim bap in draughty dingy places on Bloor Street where the servers speak almost no English.
On Eglinton (what a surprise!) it's all been sanitized. Ethnic goes country club. Okay, maybe not country club - but very comfy for well-off white folks. At Bi Bim Bap the servers speak perfect English and the room is cozy and attractive, with brick red walls. Korea, meet Forest Hill.
Here, Korean food has been re-imagined for an uptick in health and to make it snazzier. Hence the wasabi salad - the best item on the menu - crunchy strips of Asian pear, carrot, lettuce, omelette strips, lightly marinated white and green onion, cucumber, sweet peppers and fake crab (which should be deleted) all dressed in slightly sweet, fiery wasabi vinaigrette. The other fine dish is sweet-potato glass-noodle salad or dark brown pungent sweet-potato noodles, spinach, carrot shreds and sautéed mushrooms.
The restaurant's namesake dish, bi bim bap, is confusing. I think of this as Korea's national dish - you get it everywhere in Koreatown - and Bi Bim Bap is trying so hard to make it better. But how can you make something better when it's a) already wonderful and b) pretty simple. Bi bim bap is a base of rice served in a stone bowl (cooked in a fast oven so it's terrifyingly hot when it comes to table), pretty much always topped with carrot, almost raw zucchini, buckwheat sprouts, mushrooms, Korean radish, spinach and, for crowning glory, a raw egg yolk and ribbons of crispy nori. The diner is meant to add spicy red sauce and mix it all together.
By tradition it comes with different add-ons like marinated beef ribs and a diverse range of vegetables. Bi Bim Bap does a significantly better job on the beef than elsewhere: Their ribs are rare and tenderand there are many garnishes on top. Unlike elsewhere, you choose the sauce for your stone bowl, from the likes of bean, apple and kimchi. The sauces, however, aren't assertive enough to change bi bim bap; and the miso soup is pathetically bland. I adore the cinnamon-ginger tea that comes after dinner, and I appreciate both the brown-rice option and the owner's gracious presence. But bottom line: The Forest Hill rendition is just a sanitized response to Koreatown.
It feels more exotic (and perhaps more authentic) to eat bi bim bap (slightly stringy beef and all) on Bloor Street, where English is a very distant second language and most everyone in the place is Korean. At the newish Tofu Village (offspring of the Markham Tofu Village), they have made an effort to make the place look good, but it's the food that particularly delights. One ignores the greasiness of seafood scallion pancake (really a thick egg-and-rice-flour omelette) thanks to its great chunks of squid, shrimp and green onion.
Korean wonton soup is deep rich broth (tastes like pork to me, though they say it's chicken) with many big fat pork dumplings studded with seaweed and chives. Chap chae is that classic sweet-potato noodle salad, here splendidly spiked with slivers of cabbage, red pepper, green onion and marinated beef ribs.
Tofu Village makes their kimchi daily; it's fresher and less fiery than elsewhere, with a hint of sweet. Their tofu is silken enough to give the restaurant its name. .
Despite the plethora of Korean restaurants across the city, Korean food was stuck in a niche market - until these two figured out to dial down the chili heat and upscale the décor. We can now expect to see a host of imitators, and a whole new Toronto following for the cuisine of kimchi and stone-bowl rice.