Bleak chic: The dining room at Moon Park in Redfern. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
Bulgogi, bibimbap, kimchi. They're the buzz words of the food world as flavour researchers and trends forecasters predict more Korean food love for 2014. So why are there 19 Japanese restaurants, 16 Chinese, 12 Thai, and 7 Malaysian restaurants listed in the current Good Food Guide, and no Korean? Because we pigeon-hole Korean food as cheap and spicy - good for crowds and late-night beer fests, rather than for ''proper'' dining.
We couldn't be more wrong.
So put your hands together for Moon Park, where young chefs Ben Sears and his partner, Eun Hee An, formerly of Claude's in Woollahra, together with Ned Brooks of Brooks & Amos wine wholesalers, have taken over a first-floor dive-bar lease overlooking Redfern Park. The tables on the wrap-around balcony have park views, while inside, the room and bar are Bleak Chic, with the sort of poured-floored, bare-walled, bare-bulb sparseness that comes from a low budget and a bit of style.
Uplifting: Bibim strays from the original bibimbap rice bowl. Photo: Steven Siewert
A thorough knowledge of Korean food would only be a handicap here, as much of the cuisine has been hacked and reimagined. Crisp rice crackers arrive; floaty, lightly spiced bites of crunch. Then come soft, light and crusty little fingers of chickpea and pork ''cake'' ($5), served with a thick citrussy yuzu and fermented green chilli sauce.
Imjasutang ($17), traditionally a chilled "royal" chicken soup, is presented as a salad, the silky pieces of poached chicken teamed with discs of thinly sliced carrot, rose petals, mushrooms and splodges of date puree and sesame paste. It's subtle, seasonal, and as pretty as hell.
Bibim ($20), too, strays from the original bibimbap rice bowl topped with sautéed vegetables, sliced beef and raw egg, to be a fresh, uplifting little collection of sweet corn, rice, barley, cured egg, nori and crab meat ready for tossing with fruity, ripe gochujang chilli sauce.
Go-to dish: Imjasutang - royal chicken salad with rose petals, mushrooms and date puree. Photo: Steven Siewert
Even bulgogi, that traditional dish of sliced, grilled marinated beef, is re-presented as a burger, the deeply flavoured meat marinated, hand-cut and tucked into a soft/crisp bun with fiery kimchi and lightly pickled onion ($15). It even comes with fries, taking it further into the street-food realm and sending out a ''we don't just do fancy'' message. Similarly, Korean fried chicken ($18) sits slap-bang in the middle of more serene compositions. It's good, with a twang of sweetness, but again, it seems at odds - although the fact that almost every table has ordered it suggests that I have no idea what I'm talking about.
For me, it's easily outgunned by the tarakjuk ($18), a voluptuous, smooth oozy congee strewn with intense shreds of oxtail, kkaennip (perilla leaf) kimchi, and jelly-like cubes of translucent beef tendon.
Ned Brooks' astutely judged, natural-leaning wine list is a small treasure, running from OB rice beer and Joeun Day soju to a J J Confuron Cotes de Nuit-Villages at $130. But how to resist something called Breakfast wine ($60), a juicy, drinkable, sunny-side-up sauvignon blanc from young wine-maker Patrick Sullivan's Yarra Valley 2012 vintage?
Dessert is sugared doughnuts ($13). Are we really that easy? Yep, when they're lurking surreptitiously with creamy omija berry parfait, a flourish of fig leaf shaved milk ice, and a syrupy mix of red bean and strawberries.
Little Moon Park sits as if on a space station between Korea and Australia, where the locals have developed a hybrid of the things they miss from home but expressed it in the language of the day. Expect bare bones, a two-speed menu and a cacophonous space, but expect also good skills, street-food smarts, lots of niceness, and an insider's respect for one of the world's gutsiest and most elegant cuisines.
Best bit: Korean gets cool
Worst bit: Deep-frying smells
Go-to dish: Imjasutang - royal chicken salad with rose petals, mushrooms and date puree, $17.
- Cuisine - Korean
- Prices - around $75 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Accepts bookings, Licensed
- Chef(s) - Eun Hee An
- Owners - Eun Hee An and Ned Brooks
- Opening Hours - Lunch Fri & Sun noon-3pm; Dinner Tues-Sat 5.30-11pm
- Author - Terry Durack