Traditional Korean fare with a twist
JUMPING on the K-Wave bandwagon, some restaurants are serving up creative innovations with traditional Korean tastes.
Guksu Homemade Noodle House
Suntec City #02-385
11am to 10.30pm daily
In the last few years, Japanese ramen places and Vietnamese noodle bars - along with their long queues of customers waiting tirelessly in line just to get their fix - have become a common sight here.
For restaurateur Haden Hee, our national obsession with foreign noodles was one reason that he decided it was a good time to set up his latest food-and-beverage venture, Guksu Homemade Noodle House.
"There are many Korean restaurants in Singapore, but there are not many pure Korean noodle houses here...As ramen is doing well (and) Korean cuisine is doing well, I thought, 'Why not bring in Korean ramen?' " says Mr Hee, who also runs Kimchi Korean Restaurant and Kimchi Xpress.
The noodle bar, which opened last month, serves three types of handmade Korean noodles (so meon, jung meon and kal guksu) in four broths (anchovy, clam, prawn and beef). Prices range from $9.90 to $14.90 for an a la carte bowl of noodles.
The restaurant's food director, Choi Min Chul, 34, explains that the difference between its ramen and Japanese ramen lies mainly in the soup base.
"Japanese ramen is normally made with pork-stock base, and their ingredients are mostly pork; but we have four different bases and you cannot find these in Japanese ramen shops," he says.
The original recipes come from head chef Kahng Heun Sung's grandmother, who used to run her own noodle shop in Korea back in the 1940s. Those recipes were tweaked slightly, however, in order to slowly accustom Singaporeans' tastebuds to this unfamiliar dish.
"We need to be able to introduce our food to Singaporeans, because if this food is delicious but no one comes in and eats, then there is no point," says Mr Choi.
"Once they are comfortable with our food, then we can introduce more original Korean flavours. (When) we are successful, we can do anything, but for now, people still don't understand Korean noodles, so that's why we have to add a modern touch to our recipes."
FIRING UP WESTERN DISHES
5 Tan Quee Lan Street
5.30pm to midnight daily
Red-pepper paste and kimchi have been given a new lease of life outside common Korean dishes such as bibimbap and kimchi stew at Joo Bar, a month-old eatery in a three-storey shophouse in Bugis, where they are being creatively used to fire up popular Western dishes.
Red-pepper paste, for example, is used in the seafood gochujang (red-pepper paste) risotto ($24); while kimchi is used to flavour the mac and cheese ($14).
Says owner Kristin Lim, 34: "We wanted a balance between the old and new, so there's traditional Korean comfort food for our regular clients, but at the same time, there's something interesting to keep people coming back because you can't find it anywhere else."
In addition to Joo Bar, Ms Lim runs E!GHT Korean BBQ at Clarke Quay and the Australian rock candy store Sticky with her husband.
The couple opened the Korean BBQ outlet here last year after coming across the franchise in Los Angeles. It was while running that restaurant that they developed an interest in Korean drinking culture and decided to explore that option.
"We opened this restaurant for practical reasons, because we felt a lot of our regular clients (at E!GHT Korean BBQ) wanted to stay on after a meal to drink," explains Ms Lim.
That was when they came up with the concept for Joo Bar, which is to brew their own makgeolli - a traditional type of Korean alcohol which is much lighter than the more popular soju - using organic rice wine.
The food concept came naturally. "A lot of makgeolli places in Korea are trendy and hip, so we thought it wouldn't be out of place if our food was trendy as well," says Ms Lim of the eatery's slightly unusual menu.
Ultimately, it also came down to what they themselves enjoyed eating. She says: "My team is very young, so we're into rice and potatoes and things like mac and cheese...We've tailored it to the Singaporean taste a bit, but most of our dishes still have traditional roots. It's not really detracting from traditional Korean cuisine."
CREATING NEW CONCEPTS
Sync Korean Fusion Bistro
Westgate Mall #03-01
11am to 11pm daily
Whoever said you can't turn fantasy into money-making reality probably never met Brian Seow and his wife, Lisa Tan - a couple who took their fixation with Korean dramas and the Hallyu craze in general a step further by opening two restaurants offering kimchi-inflected cooking with a fusion twist.
"My wife and I travel frequently to Korea and we see the new trends in cafes and restaurants there and we just fall in love with them," says Mr Seow. "We love to eat and taste all kinds of food. Having a restaurant of our own is a way for us to expand our creativity and create new concepts."
Their Sync restaurant brand now boasts two outlets: the first in Westgate Mall and the second in Serangoon Gardens. Westgate is more family-oriented while the Serangoon outlet emphasises the bar element.
Both feature Korean fusion food. Ddukbokki - the Korean classic of rice cakes cooked in spicy sauce with fishcakes - gets a triple cheese topping, while kimchi is added to the cheese fries.
"Most of the time, we use original recipes and sauces from Korea, but we add Western ingredients here and there. We try to cater to the local palate by creating new dishes that taste good, but without compromising the authentic Korean taste."
With so many Korean restaurants opening in Singapore, Mr Seow reckons the time is right to offer something different from the usual mom-and-pop family-style restaurants that form the bulk of such eateries. "Five to 10 years down the road, the next generation of Singaporeans will have different tastebuds, so we need to have something to appeal to them."
Hence, he's banking on his modified Korean recipes to attract diners. "When we started, people said it didn't taste like authentic Korean food, but we explained our concept to them and now they understand it."
The going hasn't always been easy. "Initially, (our Westgate outlet) was not doing very well as we were the only Korean fusion place in a mall that focused more on Japanese food. With hard work, our business has almost doubled, but we are still trying to build up our brand.
"We're one of only a few mod Korean restaurants around, so I think it's a challenge for us to introduce such a concept.
"But we like it and we believe people will soon like it. It's something we can build on. There will be people to preserve authentic Korean food, but for us, we think we need to introduce something new as we go along."
THE BUSINESS TIMES