HO SU BISTRO (254 Queen West, at John, 416-848-9456) If you know nothing about Korea's language and culture, dining in a Korean restaurant can be intimidating. But this bright, spacious, informal spot breaks through with modern takes on traditional Seoul food plus lots of Japanese options. Complete meals for $30 per person ($20 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a bottle of domestic beer. Open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to midnight. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
the space occupied by ho su bistro, a brand spanking new Korean eatery on Queen West, comes with a history. The long, narrow room kitty-corner to Citytv and MuchMusic debuted 10 years ago as the Parrot Express, later truncated to just the Express. With its prime people-watching patio and huge sandwiches, it was one of the most popular lunch spots on the strip.About a year ago, the Express de-railed. Locals were shocked when the boarded-up storefront was removed to reveal a divey luncheonette. Everywhere else downtown, this process gets reversed -- a run-down resto becomes a hip haunt.
The greasy spoon lasted a month before closing just as mysteriously as it had opened. The hoarding went up again. When it came down three weeks ago, Ho Su Bistro stood in its place.
And it's lovely. Forget the rigid formality of the Korea Town restaurants that dominate Bloor west of Bathurst. Instead, think San, the hugely popular and stylish Korean spot launched on Queen West two years ago.
Here at Ho Su, the large, brightly lit space, including several semi-private areas and alcoves, is painted pale Prada green. Bare wood tables are rather small but nicely spaced, and the chairs are comfortable.
In front, a tall window counter decked out with a potted orchid lets those who are interested keep an eye on the celebrities getting intimate and interactive across the street, while bland Korean boy bands eat their hearts out over the sound system. Thankfully, the soft roar of the kitchen exhaust system almost drowns them out.
The illustrated and laminated eight- page menu leans to a modernist take on traditional Korean dishes. Though there's some Seoul food offered on a separate insert -- things like main-sized red-pepper-fired beef soup (Yuk Ke Jang, $8.95) or deliciously slurpable Chap Chae cellophane noodles ($2.95) -- most of the lineup spotlights the kinds of inexpensive noshes found at modish Japanese joints like Sushi on Bloor. And that's why, right from the get-go, this bistro's bustling.
We start with Tikim Mon Doo ($1.95), an OK crepe-like wrapper stuffed with wilted coleslaw in thin, sweet mayo that comes with both ketchup (!) and smoky hot pepper hot dips. Next up, Rainbow Roll maki ($7.95) combines sushi and sashimi -- six attractive nori 'n' rice California rolls arrive wrapped in raw tuna, salmon or whitefish. But tempura tofu, a single bean curd cake that's been cut into four cubes, then battered and deep-fried, seems overpriced even if it only costs $2.95.
However, at $7.95. Beef Bibim Bop is a great value. I grab some one day for a quick take-away dinner and am surprised by its heft. So much so that I actually weigh the container packed with glutinous rice and pickled strips of carrot, English cuke, hijiki and spinach, as well as coleslaw, Chap Chae and steamed broccoli, all topped with minced beef zapped by Korean barbecue sauce. It's over 2 pounds!
Another day, club kid Jennifer Convertible orders a vegetarian version of Dolsot Bi Bim Bop ($9.95). Although it's oven-cooked in the thick cast-iron serving bowl so the bottom layer of rice is nice and crispy, there are definitely slices of beef layered on top next to a sunny-side-up fried egg. Our polite server immediately whisks the dish away, returning a moment later with the same bowl minus the meat. A lapsed vegetarian, Jennifer eats it anyway, but quibbles that the egg should have had a runny yolk so that, when stirred into the mess of veggies and rice, it would continue to cook.
Most mains come with bowls of better-than-average smoky golden miso soup thick with tiny tofu cubes and slivered scallions.
And as at all Korean eateries, meals here begin with small bowls of mildly pickled veggies perfect for piquing the appetite: cool spinach leaves with sesame oil and seeds, fiery fermented cabbage kimchee and lightly dressed mung bean sprouts. And don't forget to ask for steaming mugs of toasted barley tea -- it's free but not on the menu nor automatically offered.