204 Devonshire St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
|Opening hours||Dinner Tue-Sat from 5pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 8593 4957|
Sorry, Soul Dining. You were on my review to-do list when you opened in Surry Hills three years ago, and then, well, you know ... COVID. For a while there, my to-do list became nothing-to-do.
You even opened a casual Korean cafe and food store in Campbell Street called Soul Deli, where I had a smashing kimchi toasty and coffee from Dan Kim's Primary Coffee Roasters, but I still didn't make it to the mothership.
Mind you, Devonshire Street has been an unholy mess best avoided for the past couple of years, as it prepared itself for the light rail to go right down its middle.
But now you have a stop just outside your little terrace door, no more jackhammers, and me on table 24, trying to work out whether to go a la carte or do the tasting menu.
Loving the room, by the way, and what your owners Daero Lee and Illa Kim have done to the space, together with Form Interior Design and RFM Designer Projects.
With its 12-metre loop of halo lighting, blue velvet banquettes and distressed, charcoal-daubed walls, it's as dark as a bar in some far-off fictional world in The Mandalorian, yet I can still read the menu.
With every table taken – on a Tuesday evening! – it's also as buzzy as a pub, yet I can still hear myself think.
Lee and head chef Jaeyoung "Jay" Lee cook with a Korean sensibility shaped by the creative license of contemporary Australia. So fresh, raw kingfish ($26) comes bathed in "kimchi water", singing with freshness and topped with white kimchi and avocado puree.
A beautifully presented bibimbap ($42) sees cooked-to-order short-grain rice topped with ocean trout instead of the usual marinated beef, with raw scallop, egg yolk, seaweed and a savory soy butter.
Toss it into a steamy, savoury mess (bibim means to toss) for lots of that rich, nutty flavour Koreans call gosohan-mat.
There's "bread and butter", with a fluffy, chewy, honey-scented steamed rice bread that is uncannily halfway between rice and bread.
Rice, in fact, turns up in all sorts of intriguing ways across the menu – deep-fried and crunchy, glutinous and stir-fried, steamed in a clay pot – in a tacit acknowledgement of its importance in Korean cuisine.
It's all making me feel guilty for not getting here sooner. This is contemporary Korean cooking as might be seen in New York or in today's Seoul (hence the name). At every turn, the kitchen challenges any perceptions of Korean food as being meat-heavy, oily and cooked on the street or at the table.
Take the prawn tteokbokki ($36), inspired by the popular street food dish of bouncy little cylinders of rice cake in gochujang sauce.
Here, the kitchen slow-cooks capsicum sambal and combines it with prawn bisque and sweet little chunks of Yamba prawns until it's like eating a luxurious bouillabaisse. Saucy, fun and texturally mesmerising, its definitely more tteokkgnocchi than bokki.
Jaeyoung Lee's spicy charcoal chicken ($38) is an autumnal play on dak-galbi, the chicken marinated in lightly sweet and spicy gochujang and grilled over charcoal, sent out under cover of charred radicchio and pickled red cabbage. Little cubes of crisp fried rice cake add crunch and comfort.
To finish, deep-fried rice flour chapssal doughnuts filled with red bean and cream cheese ($18) are Westernised with a quenelle of green tea ice-cream swaddled in translucent persimmon.
Floor staff are efficient without going out of their way, and wine is taken seriously, from a $58 Hunky Dory Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough to a $355 Mount Mary Bordeaux Blend.
"There were low expectations about a Korean restaurant having a great wine list," notes co-owner Illa Kim. That'll show 'em.
For three years now, Soul Dining has been quietly cooking some of the most interesting and expressive contemporary Korean food in town. My apologies for not bringing it to your attention earlier.
Vibe Dark, luminous sci-fi interior filled with K-food lovers
Go-to dish Prawn tteokbokki, $36
Drinks Cass Korean beer, kooky cocktails (Kimlet, Aloe Aloe) and a thoughtful, award-winning 50-bottle wine list