Korean food may not have the universal appeal of other Asian cuisines in this city, such as Chinese, Thai, and Indian. But the mushrooming number of Korean restaurants indicates it’s developing a following. I should think its straightforward properties would be an asset, as well as its love affair with beef. Particularly beef cooked over a flame, treated sweetly.
So I’m slowly making my way around Ottawa’s burgeoning Korean restaurant scene (tasty travelling for the most part) attempting to further my education on a cuisine still new to me.
I’ve landed a couple of times at Alirang, a little house on Nelson Street, and clearly with its own devotees. This Tuesday night, despite severe weather, hail warnings and teeming skies, the house is packed, including the private dining room at the front. The only empty tables are two at the back, reserved for tabletop grilling. These call for 24 hours’ notice, apparently, and then “only when the kitchen says its OK.” I would suggest Alirang isn’t a good choice if you’ve a heart set on grilling it yourself. It’s a solid choice, though, for having the kitchen do the work for you.
Roasted barley tea arrives in a highball as I sit down. My server is a student at the University of Ottawa, and she’s managing a packed room of mostly Korean and Chinese students, couples and families, with skill and good cheer. Until my date arrives, I have only the LED jellyfish aquarium beside my head for mesmerizing company, and the mouth-watering aroma of roasted sesame seed makes for impatient waiting.
At dinner time, the lava lamps at the bar blush on and off, and little coloured lights and well-lit fish tanks lend a warm, quirky glow to a small, comfortable trio of rooms, with seating for about 50.
The 49 around me appear to be tucking into wedges of pajeong, a green onion and seafood pancake, and so we join in, enjoying the sweet, chewy crèpe, studded with green onion and generous of shrimp. Skewers of grilled chicken are moist morsels of dark meat, marinated in what most things seem to be marinated in – a paste of soy sauce and sesame oil, sugar, onion, ginger, and garlic.
Photos of the main dishes provide some guidance, but the menu is long.
Ask for advice and you’ll be guided toward the bulgogi (fiery beef, in translation, but more sweetly pungent than flaming hot, stir-fried with onion and mushroom) and the dolsot bibimbap, a sizzling clay pot with rice as its base, topped with sweetly grilled beef and a rainbow of finely shredded vegetables, mixed with a Korean hot sauce and crowned with a fried egg. I’ve had more enjoyable versions of this classic in other Korean restaurants. Although fragrant, a runny egg would have lent more moisture, and the dish could have used more of that.
Bulgalbi is terrific here. Beef short ribs are sawed thin, marinated in soy, ginger, garlic, sugar and crushed sesame seed and then barbecued. Roasted to brown and crisp, this is tender, tasty meat. A burbling pot of pork stew is very satisfying, soft meat still clinging to bones, the brick-red broth filled in with squares of soft tofu and rings of green onion, the brew rich with flavour and somewhat spicy with chili oil.
Dishes come with rice, of course, and banchan – fermented vegetables with seasonings, regulars on Korean tables at every meal. The most familiar is kimchi of napa cabbage flecked with red chili peppers.
These little side dishes vary at my Alirang meals, but include bean sprouts, seaweed, potato, carrot, cucumber and radish.
With this tasty food, we drink a small bottle of Bek Se Ju, Korean rice wine, served slightly chilled and alleged to make you wildly healthy.
So we have a few, tiny cups of it, and by the third, feel positively buoyant.
Pretty much directly behind the ByTowne Cinema, Alirang is my new fave for pre- and post-show dinner.