MUL RAE BANG-A (3 Christie, at Bloor, 416-534-6833) Complete meals for $24 per person, including all taxes, tip and a beer. Average main $10.95. Open 24 hours daily. Access: barrier free. Rating: NNN
Our first visit to this Christie pitside Korean restaurant is less than a resounding success.
Ordering off the extensive, well-illustrated menu, we soon have a table’s worth of dishes laid out before us: gyoza dumplings ($6.50); sweetly sauced chicken jungsik ($14.95); dolsot bibim bap ($7.95), a heated bowl of rice, bok choy, raw egg, ground beef, sprouts and grated carrots; hae mul pa jeon ($12.95), a vast frittata studded with shrimp, octopus and pollock; and the mandatory small plates of banchan.
Everything’s entirely satisfactory except for the remarkable absence of seasoning: spices, chilies, peppers, garlic or anything else that would register on the taste buds. The exception to this is the banchan, which gives us the opportunity to acquire a Korean’s taste for all things salted, pickled and or fermented.
Working through the large pile of bland leftovers the next day, it dawns on me that we’ve been culinarily profiled, our white faces sending up the white flag in the kitchen, where the chefs immediately assumed we had stunted palates and decided to abandon all flavour.
Refusing to remain a victim, I return to Koreatown and do as the Koreatowners do, ordering the all-you-can-eat meat grill ($13.95).
Soon my table is transformed into a DIY all-you-can-meat action station. The friendly server ignites a tabletop gas-fired sauté grill, covers it with hunks of raw marinated pork neck, beef and chicken and leaves me to my own devices armed with a bowl of romaine leaves, chili-soy sauce, the ever-present banchan, raw slivered garlic, a deck of raw pork belly slices and an infinitely practical pair of scissors for meat shearing.
Before long everything’s a-sizzle, including the garlic, and I’m doing my best Sweeney Todd impersonation with the meat scissors. Dressing torn lettuce leaves with near-blackened garlic, sauce, dollops of pickled sprouts and mushrooms and chunks of seared meat yields robust, mouth-filling roll-ups. The whole meal is a juicy, crusty, meaty throwdown of carnivorous excess.
Accompanied by the soft roar of heavy ventilation, cheap domestic beer ($3.50) and the fellowship of other all-you-can-eaters, the memories of our initial disappointment burn off faster than meat juice on a hot grill.