What is it about the aroma of sesame seed oil that makes the mouth water and all seem well with the world? Let others bake bread or heat pots of potpourri to help sell a house. My plan is to toast sesame seeds.
The smells of the Dolsot CafÃ© draw us in, the food and price keep us coming back. This is a plain, tidy Korean restaurant attached to the Arum Market, a terrific little shop selling all manner of Korean and Japanese product. Until a few months ago, the restaurant was called Arum as well. It was recently re-christened to have it seem more a proper restaurant, less a little place attached to a grocery shop.
The patrons seem split
50-50 between homesick
Koreans and hungry students, plus a few folk like me – rookies, experimenting with the cuisine, trying to get better acquainted with its charms.
It seems to me that Korean food majors in meat and strong, fairly straightforward flavours – sweet, sour, pungent, spicy – which can in turn be doctored by all manner of side dishes. Some dishes are finished at the table.
Dolsot has a room devoted to tabletop grilling. And, as it happens, to lounging – here are a couple of couches, a coffee table with Chinese checkers, a messy bookshelf filled with Korean magazines, National Geographics, and the day’s papers.
If you’ve never tried tabletop grilling, Korean style, it’s a fun diversion – great for kids, for first dates, for the office gang. Just not so much fun for me. I go out so I don’t have to cook. Or else I go out to evaluate the cooking of others. So I can’t tell you about that little room with its table grills.
We sit in the first room, and examine the 50 dishes on offer. The Dolsot CafÃ© offers the full Korean package, including bulgogis, bibimbaps, tonkatsu, kalbi, spicy noodle soups, and hotpot dishes. The food comes with steamed short-grain rice and an assortment of banchan – side dishes of sweet, sour and fired-up pickles and kimchis.
We start with haemul pajeon, a seafood and scallion pancake, served in a cast iron skillet. This is very good – crispy edged and soft within, studded with long strips of shredded scallion and loaded with shrimp, squid and octopus. Gyoza, Korean style, are also a hit.
Order No. 23 and you get a thick, spicy soup, filled with a generous amount of tender, braised pork, clinging to bones, along with Napa cabbage and potato, served with rice and banchan. Beef bulgogi is slivered, tender meat, slightly sweet, fragrant of sesame, pungent of garlic and soy sauce, and mixed with onion and peppers.
Dolsot bibimbap is perhaps my favourite dish. So pretty until you muck it all up, and so tasty once you’re plowing through that which you’ve mucked. It comes in a wildly hot stone bowl (a dolsot) in which a bed of rice (crisping and crusting as it touches the sides and bottom) is covered with a colour wheel of seasoned vegetables, meat and a raw egg yolk. Bibimbap comes with gochujang (fermented red chili paste) that you drip on or ladle on, depending on your inclination. And all of this – meat, veg, seasoning, rice and egg – is stirred vigorously, blending ingredients and flavours, cooking the egg, and scraping up the bits of crispy rice as you beat.
The layer of rice that rests at the bottom has almost burnt into a crisp cake, and this you leave until the end. It is the treat. (I learn it actually has a name. It’s called nurungi, and it’s available for sale in the store next door!)
Dessert choices include lychees or longan in syrup, ice cream, or mochi ice cream (in which a ball of ice cream is coated in a sweet rice dough). I am working on acquiring a taste for it. Though not too terribly hard.
This is big, tasty, affordable food.