128 York Street South Melbourne, Victoria 3205
Patbingsoo is a happy fusion of Korean health-conscious cafe, contemporary-Oz restaurant and dessert bar. When you consider that, lately, Korean has made its pungent-chilli way into Mexican tacos, American-style fries and fried chicken, it's a forehead-slapping "of-course" moment to see that it's now into healthy ferments and fine plating.
Korean is no stranger to fermented food; kimchi is as integral to Korean cuisine as an alphabet is to words, or microbes are to cultured foods. Here, it's made in-house, and served in a good number of dishes. It's atop the pretty blue- and white-corn soft tacos, along with beef bulgogi strips and slaw all striped with mayo. It's in the signature pork gochujang bulgogi bibimbap, the beautiful-looking bowl of rice that looks like an edible colourwheel with gochujang pork shoulder, raw carrot, cucumber, blushing pink pickled daikon, pickled radish and spring onion crowned with a sunny-yellow yolk.
They also make kombucha (fermented tea), which has its roots in China or Japan and its claws into most organic or wholefoods devotees. It sits in big, glass swing-top jars on shelves and on the counter – its recurring amber glow as much ornament as advert. It's a refreshing, slightly sour tipple with a subtle fizz that helps the digestion.
Classic Korean dishes, like tteok bokki – slippery, stodgy, gnocchi-like rice cakes that are best eaten after a lot of soju, or some other time when you'll care less about subtleties of flavour and texture – are refined and redefined. They're lightly crisped so that they're more like croquettes, topped with ingenious fried fish-cake threads and tangles of finely shredded spring onion; house-made gochujang is poured on top at the table. Great.
Classic contemporary dishes are here too, like pan-fried salmon fillet, served on silky pumpkin puree, with a pretty, colourful salad of yellow and red cherry tomatoes, pickled daikon discs, cucumber pieces and flower petals. I didn't mind the wintry pumpkin and thyme with the salmon alongside the more springy salad, they balance each other out.
The namesake patbingsoo are big (one between two), sweet, icy things that I had as dessert, but that you could have for morning or afternoon tea (Patbingsoo opens right through the day should you fancy one at 3pm at the peak of the day's heat). They're like fresh, fallen snow in a bowl. The traditional one is milky and topped with azuki beans and sweet rice-cake, or there's one topped with frozen raspberries, strawberries and coulis. Mix it all around and, as the snow melts, it turns into deliciously slightly sweet mush.
Patbingsoo's long, window-fronted space is weighty with heavy wooden beams and antiquey touches, interjected with kooky little flourishes, like the "say kimchi" camera graphic and wall-sized '60s-vintage album cover – another happy fusion.
Do... Partner-up for a namesake patbingsoo
Don't... Like tap water? There's filtered for just $1 for 0.5L
Dish... Pork bulgogi bibimbap
Vibe... Cultured Korean eatery