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Hwang Kum
5908 Sherbrooke West

Open Mon.-Thurs. from.11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Thurs-Sat. 11 a.m. to midnight Closed Sunday. Licensed. No credit cards. 871-712
Oh de ol' bi bim bap, bi bim bap. Never had nuthin' like the bi bim bap.

Korean food has never been my strong point. I could never figure out on what it was based. Oh yeah, spicy cabbage relish (kimchi) gets served with everything. But that is like saying Chinese food has rice or you can get sushi in Japan. Yet, these and most other Asian cuisines do have strong centers and distinct identities. Thai has its careful alignment of spice, sweet and sour and carefully-orchestrated textures; even Vietnamese dishes have their own character defined by an obtuse minimalism with an obsequious blandness.

But Korean food has continued to elude me. Maybe it is because there are so few Korean restaurants in town and those into which I have gone have left me yearning for oriental cooking from another country. The stews were overcooked, the flavours ornery. Good meals, no matter where they are from, require balance and layers of flavours. The secret to cooking, goes one Chinese proverb, is understanding how much salt to add to the water. Once that is mastered, the rest is easy. In the Korean restaurants that I have come across, the first lesson was never mastered.

With Hwang Kum, a newcomer at 5908 Sherbrooke West, I am now ready to seriously consider Korean cooking. The place is small, clean, well-lit, and filled with local Koreans. All good signs. The kitchen is very visible; in the front behind a window. The aromas are fresh and fleeting. The nose twitches for more moments after coming through the door. A very good sign.

In its last incarnation, this site was a competent, but no more than that, cluttered souvlaki joint. It has been cleaned up completely, made brighter and more efficient. The menu is small but approachable and a small bowl of good miso soup comes with each meal. There are eight house specials, a half-dozen stews, and some platters with rice or noodles as the base. Main dishes range from the not-surprising chicken teriyaki (Korean and Japanese food share much) to the exotic, such as spicy fried beef lung. This is an interesting stew of lung which is cut up, fried and stewed in chilis and other spices and, no, I didn't try it.

I asked the waitress for something typically Korean and the bi-bim-bap was what I got. Lots of rice with stewed vegetables and a little meat underneath and a fried egg on top. This was filling if a little bland and helped immeasurably by a teapot full of Korean style spicy BBQ sauce that came on the side.

The guy at the next table put down his copy of the Korean Times and looked over approvingly. "Very healthy" he said in the tone of voice that suggested he too had ordered this dish but that was long ago and he had moved on to less virtuous, more flavoured dishes such the nice-looking beef stew that he was now eating or the baked pork hocks in sweet black bean sauce which looked wonderful, as the chef chopped one into bite-sized pieces "to go."

My mate, however, was tucking into a large platter of Korean BBQ. Hwang Kum has two versions. Bulgogi is boneless. Kalbi comes with bones. The meat is beef and marinaded in a slightly sweet soy sauce and then cooked until tender. It was served with rice, kimchi and a bowl of spicy marinated cuttlefish—slimy for my mate, tasty for me. The BBQ will bring us back. Next time I might try the potato pork rib stew with a side of cold soya noodles. I plan to work my way through the menu, which shouldn't take too long or cost too much since most dishes are between $5 and $10. I'll let you know when I get to the lung. —
Reviewed by Barry Lazar

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