Saturday, 2 November 2013

Case No. 3- Relish & Prawn v Swish by Han

Swish by Han- 38 Wellington Street East, St. Lawrence Market District

For me, the decision to eat Korean food is rarely one made sober or before midnight. The consumption of bulgogi and soon dubu is something oddly relegated to that period between the bar and going home, and I have no idea why. Why so many people choose it as their go-to drunk food is one of the great mysteries of life, like who shot JFK, or why replacing Taylor Swift’s nauseating, bubble-gum voice with shrieking goats is the most amazing thing on the interwebs.

(For those of you living under a rock or something, do yourself a favour: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujac8wi39vw)

The misty, gin-hazy memories I have of Korean mostly involve consuming large amounts of meat and leafy greens that I’ve cooked myself in big bubbling pots in rice-papered rooms, precisely a time I ought not to be cooking my own pork. This is followed by someone’s brilliant idea to stumble into a nearby karaoke bar to belt out “Material Girl” while smiling, neon anime characters leap and frolic on the television screen. This in turn is followed by more alcohol, and then I’m left patting a friend’s back as he vomits profusely into a potted bonsai outside.

Those DIY spots that dot the stretch of Bloor between Bathurst and Christie are rarely mealtime haunts; more often than not, simply spots to soak up the booze. This is how most people I know experience “Korean.” The evening is a mish-mash of Asian cultures, with Japanese beer, sushi and decorative ikebana arrangements mixed with kimchi, galbi beef and dim sum. This is all set to the soundtrack of J-Pop, BoA, and "Gangnam Style," and it’s all very confusing to a novice. It’s also difficult to get a taste for Korean cuisine when your drunk-ass friend Neil insists on being “grill master” for the night and burns the skewered squid to a rubbery, charred crisp. It was with pleasure, then, that Don Prawn and I decided to slip away from work for a midday trip to Swish by Han.

I first read about Swish in an article in Toronto Life, which provided the recipe for what looked like the most amazing pork buns I’d ever seen. I decided then and there that (a) I would tackle the recipe,(b) I would never be able to keep Kosher even if I tried and (c) I needed to hit up this restaurant. Expecting it to be located along that same strip of Bloor where every Korean joint in the city seemed to be crammed, I was surprised to find it located near St. Lawrence Market. I was equally surprised, because I must have walked past it three dozen times, and could not claim to have ever laid eyes upon it.
It's very discreet. I’m not even sure if the name appears on the two windows that front the small joint. All a passerby will see is “Korean Shabu and Ssam Bar,” and the unsuspecting will merely assume this to be the name of a nouveau Asian cocktail lounge, or might question the merits of naming a restaurant after that friendly killer whale at SeaWorld. Nevertheless, a quick scan of the Green DineSafe certificate in the window reveals that this is, indeed, Swish by Han.

We arrived slightly before opening time at noon, and were immediately asked if we had a reservation. We did not, but were seated quickly at a two person table near the kitchen. Immediately, we looked around at the dozen or so tables in the place, and all of them, large and small, were reserved. The Don and I were grateful to have snagged a table, and took the fully booked room as a sign that the meal would be good.

Swish is the brainchild of Leemo and Leeto Han, Korean-American expats now living and working in Toronto. They’re also the proprietors of one of this year’s most talked about new spots, Oddseoul, a hipster dive serving up funky Korean small plates on Ossington. It’s incredible what kind of sense you get of these brothers just by perusing the menu and looking around the restaurant. There’s a mash-up of influences at play, and not your usual pan-Asian ones. A large, round window circled by rattan panels echoes the traditional world of dining rooms filled with families seated on tatami slurping noodles. A giant mural of an outdoor scene with vases and pots that covers one wall is both serene and traditional in its subject matter, yet modern in its scale and brash in its impact. Perched atop the wall is a relic of the early 90s- a boom box, the kind Will Smith might be rapping along with as he spray paints graffiti in an alley. Two large chandeliers, grandiose and European in feeling, are set against classic King Street exposed brick and hanging lanterns, like those a miner might hold aloft to reveal discovered ore. It all feels very brash, bold and fresh, with nods to 1990s rap and hip-hop culture. The name, Swish, seems to echo something bold and flashy; that, and white Nike basketball sneakers. I immediately imagine that these brothers grew up being fed traditional Korean food at home, and going out for burgers with their friends while listening to Run DMC and the Beastie Boys.

The crowd is mostly business folk, driven out into the cold from their nearby glass and steel towers, as we were. But their commitment (they all made reservations for lunch on a weekday, for one thing) is obvious. They’re young, some professionals, and about half the dining room is Asian. Two lawyers nearby switch their focus from the menu to their Blackberries, in five second increments. A large table of friends talk loudly over the hip-hop with heaps of food generating enough steam to obscure their faces. These people all look comfortable, and at home. Works for me.

The lunch menu covers all the bases, from lighter fare to heavy-duty simmering potted food, with some appetizing sides as well. Don Prawn is disappointed to see that the kimchi tuna melt has apparently been discarded from the menu. There’s no sense in trying to search the menu prior to coming; it appears the most recent menu online dates from 2010. You’ll just have to go with your gut this time, diner. However, like those Koreatown dive joints, this is not your Halmoni’s banchan. This is untraditional Korean with American influences. Straight up with a hip-hop twist. But I imagine it gets closer to what Korean food should actually look and taste like. For one thing, there’s no chicken fried rice on the menu.

And the food is sick, yo. Everything sounds incredible. We opt to share three dishes: the ssam bap, a lettuce wrap platter with bulkogi beef; that famous pork bun with red cabbage slaw; and a trio of kimchi. Their extensive beer list is just as cool as everything else about this place, and we both opt for a local brew, Boneshaker IPA, something dark and rich for a cold day such as this one.

Within minutes, a small white tray appears filled with three types of kimchi. The server describes each one- the first, traditional cabbage kimchi, the second, kimchi made with napa cabbage and the third, a kimchi of small haricots verts. Though all are delicious, the latter is definitely my favourite, and I greedily gobble it up straight from the bowl without being polite and moving it to my plate first. I can go either way about kimchi. At times, I find it limp and too cold, with a strong vinegary flavour that overpowers any other taste. These versions don't suffer from those problems, although it might say something about my taste for kimchi that the most untraditional of the bunch was my favourite.

Not so long after does the famed pork bun arrive, kindly sliced in half for our convenience, with a small ramekin of coleslaw on the side. I have eyes and a nose, so I know I’m going to like this bun. My God, am I right. The flavourful, red meat, generously sauced, is cooked to perfection. It’s spicy, but in a pleasing, warming way, not in a drown-a-small-town-in-California-with-sriracha-fumes sense. There are some fried onions and peppers on top that melt in your mouth, and a generous helping of American cheese. This is like eating a Korean philly cheese steak. It’s to die for. To top it off, the bun is grilled on the bottom, giving the sandwich a satisfying crunch, and it holds its own against the heavy ingredients which could easily make it soggy. Don loves it too. He suggests it’s good that we only had one, and that it was split, because it is very rich. I voice my agreement because I don’t want to sound like a pig, but I’m thinking I could eat twelve more of these. This is undoubtedly the star of the meal. Even the coleslaw, such a throwaway dish, serves a gentle, cooling purpose, and the bright flavours of the red cabbage, carrot and scallions play well with black sesame and a buttermilky rich sauce. I finished the slaw, and I never finish my slaw.

                                                         Ooh heaven is a place on earth

The final dish arrives- the main event- and the presentation is wicked from the outset. A metal pail filled with crisp, bright green leaf lettuce and a small ramekin of a ketchup-like sauce, a small bowl of rice, along with a large lidded metal pot filled with steaming bulkogi, mushrooms, cucumbers and carrots. This is proper DIY Korean. I heap on the vegetables and beef, scoop on the rice and hit it with the sauce. I add a bit of the kimchi for even more flavour. The lettuce doesn’t hold up so well under the weight of my ingredients, but I blame my greedy, gluttonous self for piling it on, not the poor, innocent lettuce. Though my attempts at wrapping more often than not result in a heaped mess on my red sauce-streaked plate, I’m a happy camper. This dish is a winner.

The downside of this spot is the service. The two servers working the room are hipster-cool, with long brown locks and slouchy casual clothes. One wears an oversized sweater with a Bart Simpson head print all over. We ask her where she got it, and she kindly informs us that she purchased it in Koreatown. But that was about the friendliest spot in the service. The other server tends to our table with a too-cool attitude that suggests we’re an imposition rather than a welcome guest. I voice my approval to her of the pork bun, and she half-smirks in a way suggesting, “I’ve heard that a hundred times before, and from better people than you.” Her constant scanning of the room while tending to our table reminded me of the way one does this at a party, constantly checking for who's coming in to see if there's someone more interesting to meet.  A restaurant that’s cool is one thing. A restaurant that knows it’s cool and acts accordingly is just obnoxious.

The entire meal, three dishes and drinks came to just under $50 in total. Three dishes, drinks and tip will set you back around $20-$30, with lower priced dishes available. Though not as cheap as the usual cook your own meat joints on Bloor, it’s cheap enough to be a once-in-a-while corporate lunch spot, a place to drop in when you feel like eating something more than $11 worth of quinoa from one of those dime-a-dozen spots in the PATH.

So, what’s the verdict?

Swish by Han is found GUILTY of having pretty mediocre service and a too-cool-for-school attitude, yo.

They are also GUILTY of serving up hip, brash plates of flavourful Korean (if untraditional) that will both comfort you and fill you up, at a pretty decent price.

Swish is NOT GUILTY of sticking to that old model of Korean restaurants, with their faux-traditional d├ęcor and charging you to grill your own meat.

We also find Swish NOT GUILTY of being easy to find- in person or online. Seriously, just put the name on the window. You’re not a 1920s speakeasy. And update your menu. It can’t be that difficult.

All considered, I declare this meal an 8.0/10. Yeahhhh, boiiii.

Swish by Han is located at 38 Wellington Street East in the St. Lawrence Market district. Dinner is served from Monday to Saturday, lunch from Monday to Friday. Closed on Sunday. No, they don’t do brunch. Not everyone has to, okay? Check out their new spot Oddseoul on Ossington. I haven’t been, so don’t ask me how it is, but if you want to invite me, that’s cool. Reservations are definitely recommended.
 

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