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Pork neck tacos are lavish (left). Sous chef Shigenori Arai preps the stone bowl bi bim bap (right).
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Bi bim bap awaits its next step on the stove
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At Swish by Han, chef/owners Leemo and Leeto Han change the Korean game
SWISH BY HAN (38 Wellington East, at Leader Lane, 647-343-0268) Complete dinners for $35 (lunches $25), including tax, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $15. Open for lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2 pm, dinner Monday to Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN
Taking its name from the noise made by thinly sliced sirloin as it cooks in a bubbling hot pot of shabu-shabu, Swish by Han is having a hard time convincing Hogtown that there's more to Seoul food than cheap bi bim bap.
"Our hardest obstacle has been convincing people to pay more than they're used to paying at Bloor and Christie," says Leeto Han, who owns the two-year-old Korean resto with his brother chef Leemo. "We're on a totally different wavelength."
Sure, they keep the lunchtime horde happy with the interactive likes of barbecued pork wrapped in lettuce leaves ($15/$18 dinner) and the requisite namesake noodle dish ($15/$25), but the romantic chandelier-lit room really comes into its own after dark.
That's when the chefs Han send out contemporary plates like Berkshire pork pot-stickers ($7) in sweet citrus soy sauce tossed with slivered Thai chilies alongside house-made ban chan - roasted corn with kale and almonds, sweet red slaw, fried fish cake - and three types of family-recipe kimchee (both $5), our favourite garlicky chive buds.
Beretta Farms' naturally raised beef shank gets braised sous vide for 48 hours, chilled, then sliced and torched to order, a mix of mesclun and seared scallion in a soy and rice wine vinaigrette completing the sizable wooden platter (Soo Yook, $12). Side them with terrific red onion rings ($7) in perfect tempura batter with kimchee aioli dip and watch them disappear.
No Koreatown cantina is ever going to pair a sweetly pickled Asian pear with organic greens in garlic-ginger dressing and crumbled blue cheese ($8). Shame that. And while the carte does include bi bim bap, the upscale Swish take comes topped with lobster tail and a quail egg ($15). Wash them down with tall glasses of tart yuzu soda and gingery iced tea laced with enough mint to make a mojito (both $4).
Any chef attempting to update the Korean culinary canon risks comparison with David Chang of New York City's Momofuku. While Chang will likely be stuffing his signature slow-roasted pork belly into steamed Chinese buns at one of his two restos in the new Shangri-la Hotel here next year, the Hans layer grilled 'n' buttered Ace Bakery onion buns with spectacularly spicy pork neck, processed American cheese and sesame-onion relish before cutting them into four slider-sized pieces ($7).
Nor does Chang add that same super-tender neck to tacos piled with raw red cabbage and dribbled chipotle mayo, sour cream queso fresco and a last-minute squirt of lime ($10).
Who could have guessed that the next big thing has been in our own backyard all along?