I was looking for something light and refreshing for lunch on a recent steamy summer afternoon. And while Korean food — with its stir-fries, bubbling broths, and spicy stews — might not be an obvious choice, I was glad I took the gamble. Le Kim Chi, Little Italy’s foray into the world of Korean cuisine, is gaining a reputation as one of the best places for it in town. A menu of $12.95 lunch specials beckoned me in from the heat. I was soon rewarded with a warm greeting and a tall glass of plum honey ice tea.
Next to arrive was a small iceberg lettuce salad with a surprisingly addictive dressing made from pineapple puree and diced fresh strawberries. There were small side dishes (panchan) including kim chi and sweet crunchy cucumbers. I sheepishly confessed to my server that I have yet to acquire a taste for kim chi. She laughed and said, “Don’t’ worry. I feel exactly the same way about blue cheese!” This set me at ease as I prepared to devour the signature Korean dish, bibimbap, which arrived in a searing hotpot.
I was instructed to stir the nicely arranged elements (two types of mushrooms, carrots, sprouts, zucchini, beef, greens, and crumbled seaweed on top of rice) together with my chopsticks immediately so that the heat of the bowl would cook the golden egg yolk that sat in the centre. After a few bites, I stirred in some of the earthy-sweet red chili pepper paste served on the side. It improved the flavour immensely without igniting a fire in my mouth. It’s worth noting that the tiny strips of beef, no bigger than the shredded carrot, are just one instrument in this symphony of flavours and textures. In other words, those looking for more meat-centred dish might consider the bulgogi.
The beauty of bibimbap is that its sum is greater than its parts. I like that it seemed like nothing special at first — a warm composed salad of sorts — but soon the complexity of this colourful, comforting veggie-loaded lunch was revealed. I don’t think I looked up from the restorative bowl until every last crunchy grain of rice was gone. In fact, I had the same experience with the black sesame ice cream for dessert. The subtle nuttiness and beautiful blue-grey colour grew more and more appealing with each bite. When’s the last time you ate something for lunch that did that?
Le Kim Chi 420 Preston St., 613.233.2433, www.lekimchi.com