Ottawa’s Korean restaurant footprint is widening and aren’t we glad about that? Ten years ago, I think I would have counted three. Today, there are 14, though no doubt I’ve missed some.
Unlike Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, which began in the centre of town and have spread to the suburbs (aren’t there pho houses in every other mini mall now?), most of our Korean restaurants are still concentrated in the core – in Chinatown, downtown, Preston Street and along Rideau Street. Many align themselves with Japanese food. It’s not a marriage I fully understand though I suspect it has much to do with attracting a wider audience (“try our dolsot bibimbap, and kimchi chigae, but we also have steak teriyaki and California rolls …”).
The five-year-old Miga, on Bank Street, is one of these. It’s a nondescript little place, busy, basic, with seating for perhaps 40 at bare tables, at a small sushi bar, and at a couple of tabletop grills.
Other than a bit of sushi and sashimi (good enough, though nothing memorable) I’ve not lingered on the Japanese side of the menu, wandering happily toward the Korean dishes.
Besides, we happened upon Miga on the first day of Seollal (the Korean New Year) and the kitchen was feeling generous. To our table came little freebies: the traditional festive bowl of rice cake soup with mandu (dumplings) and small triangles of delicate pa-jeon, a Korean pancake/omelette, threaded with scallion and ribbons of vegetable, and furnished with a sweetened soy-vinegar-sesame dipping sauce.
I can never resist bibimbap, a dish with a rice base and a colour wheel of finely chopped seasoned vegetables – carrot, spinach, zucchini, bean sprouts – and marinated beef, topped with sesame seeds and an egg. That egg arrives raw, if bibimbap is ordered in a sizzling stone bowl (dolsot) and sunny-fried ($2 cheaper) if ordered in a regular soup bowl. it’s worth the toonie for the extra moisture the raw egg lends the dish, and for the browned and crispy cakes of rice that are the reward for making it to the bottom of the bowl. There’s hot sauce (kochujang) to liven the tasty mess, and kimchi to add the sour, pungent notes.
Miso soup arrives without its usual lid (ceremonially lifted so the sea aroma wafts nose-ward) and only tepid at lunch, but it is the only misstep. The beef short ribs are meaty, tender, and fragrant of sesame. The unagi donburi is unctuously rich eel aboard a sea of warm rice. We add pickled zucchini, cubes of reddened turnip, cabbage kimchi, sesame oiled bean sprouts and squirts of kochujang. The milky tofu soup with pork, clams and egg, is a flu-fighter if ever there were one – a fiery broth, too hot at first, in temperature and in chili-heat, and then, carefully and with gritted determination, a slow-release pleasure.
Japanese pear and thin slices of radish perk up the sashimi salad, the raw fish cut in cool cubes, and topped with great dollops of masago (capelin roe) which lends the dish some salty pop.
There are noodles dishes here. The udon with fish cake and fried tofu in a bonito broth, cold buckwheat noodles topped with egg, beef and vegetable, and the Korean beef soup (sagol kalguksu) the noodles soft and delicate, the broth made flavourful with roasted bones. I’ve been told at other Korean restaurants that this is the soup used to cure hangovers. I wouldn’t know, but I have passed along the information to my boys.
We drink a bit of beer with this food, and brown rice tea, and we find comfort in the hospitality offered at Miga. The bill – which seems pretty fair – comes with a mug of cold, sweet cinnamon tea.