Rick McGinnis/metro Toronto
Ninth Gate Korean Bistro
Address: 11 Jarvis St.
Hours: Sun. to Wed., 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Thurs. to Sat., 11: 30 a.m. - 11 a.m.; Sat. & Sun., open for brunch from 10 a.m.
Capacity: 70 inside, 60 on patio
Dinner: for 2 w/tax & tip $70
*** 1/2 (out of five)
When Steven Lee returned from Asia with Michelle, his Korean-born wife, he took her around to Toronto’s Korean restaurant strip on Bloor West between Bathurst and Christie. In any given season, there are about a dozen restaurants on the strip, serving basically the same hearty, inexpensive fare, but Michelle missed the range and sophistication of the high-end eateries she was used to in Seoul.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of how the couple ended up opening a sleek, airy Korean bistro kitty corner from St. Lawrence Market and a long way from Bloor West.
“The concept was to take Korean food,” Steven tells me, “have an understanding of what Korean food is acceptable, and then take that food and present it, plate it, package it differently and create an atmosphere people want to try. The goal of this place is to try to bring Korean food to a wider audience, to get it recognized.”
The couple had seen how Korean food had become popular in cities like New York and Los Angeles, with large Korean communities that helped keep restaurants afloat while they attracted diners from outside the community. They looked hard at the staples on Korean menus — the beef barbecued on hot plates at the table, spicy, fragrant stews like kimchi chigae and doenjang chigae — and made the hard decision that they had to go.
“My wife grew up on this stuff,” Steven tells me, “and she likes it and said ‘Why don’t we try that here.’ The only problem is, if we start serving that stuff, within a month the place is going to start smelling like kimchi chigae, and that’s not what we wanted.” A lawyer, Steven didn’t imagine that local businessmen wanted to go back to their office smelling of kimchi, the red pepper fermented cabbage that’s the national dish of Korea.
Another break from tradition was to take the panchan — the traditional small plates and dishes of pickled appetizers that occupy the centre of every Korean dinner table — and incorporate them into the entrées.
“Generally Korean food is meant to be shared, so you have your dishes in the middle, and you have your rice ... The one thing that I didn’t like about it when you took western guests was that it tended to get rather messy. After a full meal you have these dishes lying all over the place, you have these stews all over, lettuce leaves everywhere. It didn’t lend itself to a place where you could take a guest.”
Kimchi — one of the five healthiest foods in the world, according to a recent study — does appear at Ninth Gate, at the centre of a small, neat trio of panchan that comes free with every meal, but it’s a far cry from the pungent, fermented kimchi served on Bloor West. “I like to call it ‘Seoul kimchi,’” Steven says. “Not very red, not extremely spicy. It has a clean, fresh look to it, and that’s what we serve here.”
Ninth Gate is a bright, airy space, where loping, chilled-out dance tunes play over the sound system and waitresses sporting the cutest uniforms in the city — knee socks and short skirts — as they bring you your dolsot bibim bap. It’s the most popular dish on the menu, a mix of rice, pickled vegetables, meat and hot sauce served in a hot stone bowl. It’s so popular that the Lees are planning to put an expanded dolsot section on the new menu, with a choice of topping like bulgogi (lean, grilled, marinated beef), egg and raw salmon.
“We’re trying to get that fine balance between people who have had Korean food before, and who are perhaps a little more adventurous,” Lee says, “and people who haven’t had Korean food and are experimenting for the first time. We’re trying to find that fine line.”