Things are changing in Little Italy at a remarkable rate.
The opening of a Korean restaurant where Angelina’s used to be is one of the more obvious signs. You might say that the shifting gastronomy of Preston Street is one of the more exciting transformations of the ’00s. But curious too is the rise in number of Korean restaurants dotting the city.
Seems to me 10 years ago we had two. We now can boast – by my rough calculation – 13, if you include those that serve a mix of Japanese and Korean dishes.
More homesick South Koreans in Ottawa? More interest from the general public in the strong flavours of Korean food? Tasty, affordable dining now competing with Vietnamese noodle houses?
Don’t know. Plan to find out, but for now, I will say, with as much authority as I can muster, that the one-year-old Le Kim Chi is a delight.
The food is fresh and flavourful, the service is charming and the ambience – if you can struggle through the mall music – is perfectly pleasant.
It’s run by the Jang family – sisters Kelly and Jennifer, and chef brother Young Koh – and they are a lovely bunch, very keen and very kind.
Le Kim Chi is not the type of place where you cook the food yourself, a style of tabletop grilling, featured at other Korean restaurants. (Stay tuned for that.)
You might start with a Korean Hite beer. Or with Bek Se Ju, a traditional Korean rice wine. Translated it means “100-year wine” because it’s said to have those live-forever properties such as ginseng, ginger and cinnamon. I prefer the beer. Or the roasted barley tea. But you can give it a go.
Other things to give a go include mandoo gook – a soup, rich and fragrant, the brown broth filled in with crunchy scallions and soft pork and chive dumplings. You may have those excellent dumplings as pot stickers too (goon mandoo) fried and served with a citrus soy sauce.
I love the pancakes, studded with chunky bits of seafood and scallion, or just with vegetables. Jap chae is a sticky jumble of glass noodles (yam) with onion, carrot, zucchini, spinach and peppers in a garlic-sesame-soy dressing that’s balanced and nicely ungreasy.
There are pot dishes to recommend. A stone pot is heated to sizzling, a layer of cooked rice (bap) is added, then meat and an array of colourful vegetables are placed on top in a petal formation, with a single raw egg yolk at its head.
Once delivered to the table, our server Kelly demolishes the pretty symmetry by squashing the egg and vigorously mixing the mounds together into a tasty mess called bibimbap. It’s a simple peasant dish wherein the rice becomes somewhat crunchy from its encounter with the sizzling pot and the soft meat, sweetly grilled vegetables, and the gochujang (red chili pepper paste served on the side) add the layers of flavour.
Korean dishes come with many small sides, called panchan. With our main dishes we receive sweet potato chunks, fiery chili paste, a bowl of seaweed and, of course, the central panchan – kimchi, or fermented Napa cabbage layered with red chili paste.
Jjim is a sweetly soupy dish of braised beef shank and vegetables.
There’s bulgogi (grilled marinated sirloin), which is tender and deliciously unctuous, and there’s kalbi (grilled short ribs). For something spicier, try the silky tofu dishes, or a pork stir-fry called dulucheegee. For adventurous palates, there’s eel “nicely and well broiled” served with vegetables and ginger, and pork belly with soybean paste.
For vegetarians – for whom Korean food is traditionally tricky – there are veg-versions of silky tofu stews (most tofu dishes come with meat or fish) and vegetable bibimbaps.
Sesame pinwheel cookies are made in-house and are delicious.
Prices are more Preston Street than Somerset, with main dishes creeping up to $20, though most plates fall into the teens.
If you aren’t conversant with Korean food, Le Kim Chi is a tasty introduction.