281 Cannon St. E., Hamilton
The look: Simple and unadorned.
The feel: Local secret.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.
What you’ll pay:Vegetable tempura $6.99; deep-fried dumplings $4.50; bulgogi $10.99; vegetable donburi $7.99; dolsot bibimbap $9.99.
Sometimes I think the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” is more applicable to restaurants than to books. Case in point: this week’s dinner at Korea House.
The restaurant is on Cannon Street East near Victoria Avenue, next door to a storefront that bills itself as “an anarchist’s social space.”
For the longest time, I thought the window facing the sidewalk was the actual restaurant — dark and covered over, with ladles and cutlery hanging at the tops of the smudged windows — and I thought “no way am I going in there.”
Eventually though, I realized the entrance is off to the left-hand side of that front window, and I’d just never seen it because it’s usually blocked by all the cars in the restaurant’s small parking lot.
Walking into Korea House, it’s not a complete 180 from exterior to interior, but it’s definitely worth looking past the facade.
The lighting is bright enough to tell the place is dated in terms of decor, and a little lacking in updates. The restaurant is small, though a mirrored wall makes it feel bigger than it is.
A couple of framed, hand-drawn portraits of children hang on a pillar as you enter. A TV plays sports behind a bar. Tables are divided by free-standing, white partitions. The dishes tend to pile up on tables when it’s not busy.
But the food was ample and satisfying, the bill shockingly low considering the amount we’d ordered and the service discreet yet accommodating.
For example, one of our party of three arrived 15 minutes late. Our server followed him to the table with a menu and cup of green tea, then got his order in quickly enough that our mains arrived together. This timely attention to our needs was consistent through the visit.
We started with vegetable tempura: eight slices of sweet potato, broccoli, peppers and squash. Each piece was fairly massive, full florets or three quarters of a pepper, encased in a nice light batter. Crisp and fluffy, without being greasy (if you haven’t yet tried Korean cuisine, a heads-up that the chopsticks here are metal rather than wood or bamboo, which makes for a slippery grip, especially with the larger pieces of tempura).
My vegetable donburi (“rice bowl dish”) was full of carrots, broccoli, wood ear mushrooms, peppers, bean curd and egg. There was ample rice and the whole thing was soaked in a sweet broth. Overly sweet for my taste, but that’s where the bottle of hot sauce came in handy.
My companion ordered the beef bulgogi (“fire meat”), which arrived bubbling hot. Thin slices of grilled, marinated beef nestled in a bowl of broth with delicate glass noodles. This too had a slightly sweet barbecue sauce flavour. A bowl of white rice arrived with it.
The dolsot bibimbap (stone pot mixed rice) came in a hot stone bowl, of course, with banchan — a collection of additional bowls containing seaweed, potatoes, kimchee and bean sprouts.
The great thing about this dish (essentially a stir-fry on rice, with an uncooked egg on top) is that the stone bowl is smoking hot, so everything keeps cooking at the table.
Occasionally, bowls aren’t hot enough, which means you miss out on having the rice warm to form a nice crispy crust. That’s not the case at Korea House. The egg hardly needed to be stirred in before it cooked through, and the rice crisped up nicely.
You can also opt for Korean barbecue here, though only a few tables have the built-in grills that allow for this option.
905-526-2458 | @Amyatthespec