Korean cuisine isn't the rare bird it once was. The Hermit Kingdom's edible heritage appears frequently on Edmonton's culinary radar with, at the very least, one dozen establishments cooking up the likes of bulgogi and kimchee.
But does familiarity, at the very worst breed contempt, or at the very best, breed complacency? The latter are certainly crowd-pleasers, but neither barbecued beef nor fermented cabbage are catch-all definitions of Korean cuisine. This reductive approach does a great disservice to both diner and chef.
Fortunately, Nongbu Korean Eatery opened earlier this year in a coveted spot just off Whyte Avenue. Here, a lofty, naturally-lit, ethereal wood-paneled room serves up coveted dishes that a Grandmother might make as comfort food, rather than an ethnic party trick. A concise bottle of Bek Jeju (pictured at left) opens the meal with sweet, thin, floral notes. Roasted corn tea - and not green tea, which is rarely served in Korea - smells heavenly. Somewhere between popcorn and polenta.
Supper progresses to Cold Squid SoMyeon (left) and Kimbap (right). Squid SoMyeon contrasts assertively spicy squid tentacles with thin, cold noodles. The latter counters the seafood's heat, while the former whets the appetite for more tea and Bek Jeju. The dish's heat builds with time, as opposed to a one-shot incendiary blast with little to no afterburn. Sesame seeds add just the right amount of toothsome nuttiness. Kimbap, on the other hand, are refreshing and savoury. Glistening seaweed sheets wrap together asparagus, rice, carrots and mushrooms. Korea's answer to maki proves both portable and delectable.
Seafood Pa-Jeon and Bo Ssam round out the evening's offering. Pa-Jeon is a pan-fried cake of shrimp, squid and scallions, all held together by crisp-edged, piping hot griddlecake. Lashings of spicy sauce are for those who dare. Bo Ssam are a cool antidote; these do-it-yourself lettuce wraps can be as full of juicy roast pork as one likes.
Indeed, Nongbu's menu gracefully embodies the balance inherent to Korean cuisine. The kitchen's even hand ensures that no single ingredient outshines another. Instead, Nongbu weaves together a multitude of flavours that create a tapestry as rich as its mother country's history.