Server Bal Geun Choi (middle) and owner-chefs Sam Lee and Janet Yun do their thing.
BI BIM BAP (950 Eglinton West, at Rostrevor, 416-787-7423, stonebowl.ca) Complete meals for $18 per person, including tax, tip and a mug of barley tea. Average main $11. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11 am to 10 pm, Sunday 11 am to 8 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Other than rice crispies and my sainted mother's meat loaf chop suey, dolsit bibimbap is the only food I know that talks back to you.
Brought to table in the hot stone bowl it's baked in, the popular Korean casserole makes quite the racket, its rice crackling as its gloriously crunchy outer shell continues to cook. Swirl in the various toppings and the cacophony continues. Is there any better winter chill killer around?
And while you can find bibimbap at Seoul food restaurants all over town (Guu does a particularly yucky interpretation with barbecued eel and cheese), Sam Lee and Janet Yun's month-old Bi Bim Bap is the only one exclusively dedicated to this noisy dish.
There are seven different versions all told, the traditional bibimbap ($8.99) being the basic model. It finds that vocal bowl of short-grain white rice garnished with slender strips of perfectly seared sirloin, a garden's worth of veggies, both raw and slightly cooked - wilted spinach, shredded carrot, salted cucumber and zucchini, pickled burdock, daikon and Korean radish, dried seaweed and sweet potato stems - and a runny fried sunny-side-up egg plopped on top. Add as much house-made red pepper gochujang hot sauce as you dare.
The remaining versions 86 the egg. Though it's suggested "for the meat lover," the Korean BBQ bibimbap's ($10.99) marinated char-grilled steak can be switched out for marvellously meaty portobello mushrooms.
Most anywhere else, the stars of kalbi short rib bibimbap ($14.99) are scrawny and cooked to the point of shoe leather. Here, they're remarkably smoky and pink-centred, some trick when the garlicky cross-cut ribs are only a quarter of an inch thick. Add some to any combo for $2.99.
You can also upgrade to nutty brown rice at no additional cost and substitute for the regular hot sauce one semi-suicidal ("not really that hot") or another surprisingly sweet from apple and balsamic vinegar instead of the usual corn syrup. Healthier, too.
Sided with Ssam sauce ("zero spicy"), the Gourmet Mushroom bibimbap sports a veritable forest of sautéed 'shrooms, including everyday button, white and brown beech, shiitake, portobello, enoki, king and crunchy wood ear fungus.
We're suckers for anything described as "something different," and Seed bibimbap (both $10.99) certainly lives up to its name. It's an innovative mix of black sesame, sunflower, pumpkin and poppy seeds with more grilled portobello and pickled veg over mirin-marinated rice.
Starters are just as creative, especially a brilliantly crisp salad of thinly sliced apple, peppers, carrot and cukes mixed with strips of scrambled egg and faux crab in a sly yellow wasabi vinaigrette ($3.99). A stack of deep-fried waxy goguma sweet potato ($2.99) comes dressed with that fab apple gochujang.
The first time we visit Bi Bim Bap, the vegetable tempura ($3.99) disappoints, a half-dozen oversized slabs of carrot and sweet potato too big to fit into its accompanying bowl of tentsuyu dipping sauce. A week later, it's been transformed into a lightly battered julienne of red onion, carrot and green pepper that's as tasty to look at as it is to eat.
All bibimbap mains come with blond miso soup, house-made red and white kimchi and constantly refilled mugs of roasted barley tea. They finish with cool soojunggwa ginger tea, a stomach-soothing digestive that tastes exactly like Valentine's Day cinnamon hearts.
As we're about to leave, I slip our affable hosts a Charlie Parker CD I've ripped in their honour. What better dinner music for a restaurant named Bi Bim Bap than bebop?