I often feel sorry for the Asian cuisines. As popular as they may be, when it comes to fine dining, few of them manage to transcend from cheap and cheerful to Michelin-star. I recall the very first time I ate a Dominion Road dumpling (New Flavour was my first), my experience close to orgasmic, or the first time tried beef bulgogi and thought “Wow, how can something taste this good!” It was up there with my first degustation dinner at Meredith’s .
In this tough world of hospitality, there’s a bunch of chefs working hard down Parnell way, trying to help Korean food make the crossing. Han is touted as ‘modern Korean’ cooked with French techniques, and is the closest Korean food has come to making this leap to date. In Auckland at least.
Speaking of Meredith’s, Min Baek, the chef behind Han, used to work there.
The first step to making people think differently about Korean (or any other Asian restaurant for that matter) is in the fit-out. And Han’s is an elegant one. The place is dark and chic, with individual lamps casting warm pools of light over each table. Wood pillars painted black divide the room up, creating a sense of hushed intimacy. There is an impressive, banquet-style round table set up at the centre. And although this is modern Korean, no Korean restaurant is complete without the ubiquitous fume exhaust that dangles overhead, protecting one’s perfectly coiffured hair or suit from smelling like barbecued meat for days.
But none of this matters, if your food isn’t great.
Han’s menu caters to both the individual and the collective. The first half is a selection of dishes suited to sharing, whilst the second half features mains and traditional Korean barbecue. We started off, on the advice of our waiter, with the beef galbi tacos. A crispy, structurally-sound shell of kumara chips came laden with wafer thin daikon radish, juicy beef short rib, tangy finely sliced kimchi and dabs of a bland-ish mayo. The beef rib was cooked to perfection, the kumara shell lending a subtle sweetness, but that mayo was perfunctory at best, a means of delivering moisture and not much else.
Baek’s days as chef and owner of the fine dining meets street food truck Uni-Ko may be behind him, but that doesn’t mean street food is off the cards at Han. Elliott and I are fans of the nouveau-wave of KFC (aka Korean Fried Chicken) so naturally plumped for Han’s version. In this town, there is a lot of KFC on offer so yours has to be the very best in order to the stand out. Does Han’s? Honestly, no. I know Koreans like and can handle a kick in the pants when it comes to heat. So Han’s by comparison is woosey, and you don’t get a choice of heat level either. The chicken (free-range of course) was tender and juicy, clearly only from the holiest of holy cuts, the thighs, but its fried outer coating was not as crispy as could be, and the spicy Korean sauce that glazed it mild in heat and in flavour.
Before moving onto bigger things, we finished this half of dinner with the beef yughoe, Han’s version of beef tartare. This is where their food really started to veer into fine dining territory. Finely hand-diced beef was served alongside toasted almond, crispy anchovy, apple wasabi puree, and kikorangi blue cheese ice cream. Its elements were technically impressive: the ice cream quite literally tasted of pungent blue cheese whilst the apple puree was strongly laced with sinus-clearing wasabi. But that is a lot of strong flavours for one plate. An utterly intriguing dish to eat, but perhaps a little too weird to be fully enjoyed. The strong flavours masked what I’m sure is lovely tasting beef.
Han serves a handful of ‘modern Korean mains’ such as ‘karbonara’, a Korean take on a classic Italian dish with taro stems, smoked pork belly, walnuts, and crispy fried chicken in a creamy sauce, or ‘soften grains, brie and free-range chicken roulade’ with roast kumara, crispy kale, eggplant puree, tamari sesame and gochujang sauce. Feeling slightly burnt by our adventurism I was glad we ordered the ‘authentic charcoal BBQ’ which came with the subtext 'to be grilled at the table’. I’ve seen a few Korean barbecues in my time, but Han’s is by far the most beautiful; an elegant box-like charcoal brazier is gingerly set down at the table along with a platter of venison bulgogi, free-range pork belly and beef skirt steak. It also comes with lettuce and perilla leaves, gochujang and a fermented chilli-bean paste, kimchi and rice to construct your own ssam (wraps). The process of tending to your dinner in this slow manner is very therapeutic; carefully observing the flavoursome char develop on your meat and listening to the quiet pop and crackle of hot fat; I was sad when we lay our last three pieces of meat on the grill, knowing this part of dinner was coming to an end. The meat remained beautifully tender and moist despite the barbecue (and I don’t pat myself on the back for this; I heard a rumour the chef gently sous-vides your meat beforehand, but this might be hearsay) and the flavour of the charcoal exquisite. I don’t care what anyone else says, charcoal is king.
Once our brazier / miniature fire-hazard had been cleared away, we were offered the dessert menu, but my courage to try new things left me when I read phrases such as ‘tomato caramel’, ‘beetroot ice cream’ and ‘red ginseng meringue’. I appreciate what Baek is trying to achieve, and maybe I’m the closed minded one in all this. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I say. Perhaps ultra-refined Korean, or classic Korean flavours amplified with French techniques, would be the better way to go. But don’t change a damn thing about your barbecue.
Unit G04a (inside ‘The Rise’)
100 Parnell Road
Ph. (09) 377 0977