Korean food delivers a world of flavour

Karl Wells
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J Korean
194 Duckworth St.
Phone 579-1133

Julia Kwon opened J Korean in 2010. Kwon was in her restaurant and on duty when I first visited three years ago. She was also on duty and just as engaged a few weeks ago when I had dinner there.

 This time, Kwon was sitting at a table near the kitchen, shaping dumplings by hand. That’s the kind of effort required to make a restaurant successful, but especially an ethnic restaurant in Newfoundland.

I’ve seen Thai, Spanish, Russian, Lebanese and Cuban restaurants fail here. Few in St. John’s knew or cared about Korean cuisine three years ago. And how many others were willing to give it a try? It was a tough sell. From the start, Kwon was smart enough to make sure J Korean would set and maintain the highest standards in all things.

J Korean has a calming effect on you that’s noticeable from the moment you sit down. I believe it has everything to do with Kwon and her personal manner. She’s a very warm, steady, sincere person. By osmosis her staff maintains the same attitude.

Our meal began with small bowls of miso soup and potato salad. The soup was all liquid (no chopped scallions or the like) but what it lacked in texture it made up in taste. The potato salad was sweet, smooth and had bits of what looked like dried fruit or raisins for added interest. By the way, potato salad is a very popular side dish in Korea.

Tuigim

Veggie tuigim is a medley of cut vegetables, still nicely firm, that have been coated in tempura batter and fried. Vegetables included: sweet potato, onion, English cucumber. A thin dipping sauce consisted of vegetable broth, dash of lemon juice and brown sugar. It was light, mildly sweet and slightly tangy. The sauce provided the extra kick needed to make the golden crispy vegetables a perfect starter.    

Chef’s gimbap is a Korean version of Japanese sushi. Shrimp, cucumber and avocado is wrapped in nori (seaweed) which in turn is wrapped in sticky rice.

The package is then sliced and served sprinkled with sesame seeds and a sauce that, in look only, resembles French dressing. Wasabi and pickled ginger are provided as well. In addition to the flavours and textures, I enjoyed the presentation of this dish, which was served on a long, narrow dory-shaped plate.

I love J Korean’s steamed mandu. Mandu are handmade dumplings filled with juicy, ground pork. The dumpling wrapper is thin, almost translucent, and very tender. Lightly coated in a soy sauce-based dipping sauce with aromatics, the steamed mandu are delicious to the point of being addictive.

Bibimbab

Bibimbab is one of those all-inclusive dishes that is a meal in itself. You’re presented with a bowl in which a variety of ingredients are arranged side by side: cubes of browned tofu, bean sprouts, carrot, avocado, cucumber, bok choy. A sunny-side-up fried egg is placed on top of the arrangement. Steamed rice is served on the side. You must put as much rice as you like into the bowl of ingredients, add some hot sauce, and stir everything together into a hash. It doesn’t look terribly attractive at this point, but it tastes great, especially when eaten with either the cabbage or cucumber kimchi side dishes.  

Kimchi is a dish that features mostly pickled cabbage and occasionally other ingredients like cucumber and green peppers. It’s spicy hot, although I found J Korean’s mostly cucumber version to be milder, refreshing and crunchy.

Kanpoonggi

Kanpoonggi is very similar to sweet and sour chicken dishes I’ve had in Chinese restaurants, although the Chinese versions have larger chicken pieces. Lightly coated bits of chicken are deep fried and tossed in a cloying, sweet and sticky reddish sauce. The steamed rice served with it is absolutely necessary. The rice helps lessen the sweetness of the sauce.  

Haemulpajeon is basically a frittata that’s served cut up into bite sized pieces. It contains calamari, shrimp, onion and a minimum of seasoning. It’s light but with the firmness of a country omelette. The tiniest application of soy sauce may be warranted if you find the haemulpajeon too fresh.

Soojeonggwa is a sweet tea that Korean mothers like to serve in the cold of wintertime. It’s a sweet but very enjoyable drink. The tea is cooked a long time and mixed with ginger, cinnamon and sugar. The sugar gives it some viscosity. The result is a round, smooth, soul and body-warming drink. It was a delightful way to end yet another memorable meal at J Korean.

Rating: ***    

Price: Dinner for two with wine and gratuity — $100 (approximately.)

Sound level: Moderate

* Fair  * * Good  * * * Excellent  * * * * Exceptional

For regular updates on “One Chef One Critic,” my Telegram Dining Out column and the latest developments on the local culinary scene, please follow me on Twitter @karl_wells.

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a restaurant panellist with enRoute Magazine. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Canadian Culinary Federation, Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Korea

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