For me, a writing experience is furthered when coupled with an expert opinion. This was such the case today, a Korean dinner with one my guests being of Korean decent. Now not only am I in the know for what is best, but am given insight to that which I otherwise dare not try. To be told if the food is as is should be and if it as authentic as advertised. As this was the case, I allowed her to order, trusting in her judgement and years of dining in this realm. We were here specifically for its proximity and it’s later opening hours, until 12am on a Monday night.
There was a struggle to locate the hidden restaurant. Part of a Korean grocery complex, but unexcessable by vehicle. I looped around the block a couple of times to learn this the hard way. At least the large lot allowed complimentary parking, which was only a few feet from the entrance. Past the Zumba studio and the pho restaurant adjacent. The exterior was pretty unspectacular. With Korean characters and the name “Potter’s Garden”. To a non speaker, you really didn’t know what you were getting into with its rainbow rimmed sign and no mention of food or service.
Inside its function was made more clear with their cash desk up front, and a peak into their kitchen from the window pass behind. In addition to the image of dishes made posted around the room. A four times the size cut out of BBQ short ribs on a hot plate; and prints of recommended dishes and Korean specials: done it paper print outs, laminated sheets, and cardboard posters. The decor was heavy with plants. Artificial or real I took no time to differentiate. White potted flowers on counters, vines wrapped around banisters, and the occasional plant heavy on the floor. An area was even sectioned off to allow for the accumulation of above mentioned greenery. A cluster similarly seen in a garden with pots and a planter. I can conclude this to be a possible explanation of their name: “Potter’s Garden”. Of lesser notice were the Korean artifacts: traditionally dressed dolls, wooden fixtures, and a window wrap depicting a scene from feudal times. Most noteworthy was the one Christmas decorations still up: a green and silver tinselled tree. I question the time it takes to keep festive and decorate relevantly. This homely touch, and the photo of what I can only guess is mother and daughter leads me to believe this to be family owned and operated.
The main dining room was to the right, where we were seated. With darkened private rooms to the left. This private rooms were left unoccupied, deserving of larger parties requesting extra privacy. Each dining room table was outfitted with a covered coil indicative of most do it yourself Korean BBQ places. A heat source to allow the barbecuing of our own cut meats and chopped vegetables, right at your table. It is as much of a dining experience as it is about the food. However a concern is the lack of ventilation and sprinklers overhead. A safety precaution at newer places with the same theme, but missing here. Against the two toned beige walls was a mounted television. The flat screen broadcasted live performances of Korean pop stars. The music playing overhead matched their vocals on screen. My guest verified they were of Top 40 quality.
I appreciate the menu’s detailed descriptions and key correspondingly labelled pictures. It allowed for easier navigation and the ability to check ingredients. Especially important as our other guest was vegan, and we were able to ask for customization of two dishes to lack its usual meaty component. As a nice touch their weighted metal utensils came wrapped. The spoon was reused but sanitized or given the perception of such with the formality of its waxy paper shield, specially labeled and branded for the restaurant. We opted not to BBQ for the unwanted desire of the process permeating our clothes. Although as soon as the one group lit their coil and began to cook, the smell of barbecue and singed meat filled the room.
Before ordering we had asked to be given a moment to further discuss. A minute grew to ten. And attracting help became a game needing the waving of arms and the meeting of eyes. All this only to later discover a buzzer mounted on the wall behind is. A helpful fact that could have been used had its existence been pointed out. To my Korean friend’s point: such is a commonality, though majority of the time it’s attached to the table, right by the jug of water you pour yourself. A point for increased visibility.
Complimentary sides: The kimchi was hard to split. The lettuce left in large chunks meant taking a bite and putting the rest back.
The sweetened potato was soft and crumbled under your tongue. A common sight and taste as a Korean starter.
The seaweed was a new spicy change. Peppery with a bit of chilli, its strong flavour helped to add taste to bland dishes.
The bean sprouts had a nutty taste, decent on its own, but better used as an accent to improve another.
“Japchae”, potato noodles stir fried with vegetables: black fungus, onion, zucchini, carrots, and peppers. We had this version without the usual cuts of beef for our resident vegan. This is my Korean staple, an order I enjoy more for the noodle’s jelly-like texture than its overall bland taste. More as a side, this could have used a main cut of meat.
Under the “Korean traditional food” portion of the menu was “Galbitang”. A soup made of beef short ribs simmered for a few hours with egg, green onion, and potato noodles. A new one for me, a favourite of my guest. She declares this a must order and here one of the better she has had. I appreciated the generous portion of ribs. The meat fell off the bone, and although its tendon and toughness proved challenging to chew, the seasoning was rich and on point. The broth was also not too thick, and evenly flavoured without the need of salt.
“Sundubu”, spicy red tofu soup with seafood and vegetables. Here the first miscommunication was made. We had ask this to be left as is with seafood to enrich the red spicy broth. Instead they kept it a tofu and onion soup. Without the seafood for accent the dish tasted watered down. Disappointing, but we let it go considering the following episode.
“Jajangmyeon”, stir fried noodles with a black soy bean sauce; was our second vegan friendly alteration. Something we clarified with the server and emphasized that we needed. There was quite the back and forth over this dish and the miscommunication surrounding it. Originally we were told by our server they had to cancel our order because they were unable to separate the meat component from the sauce. Then, who I assume was the owner or the manager by the way she spoke authoritatively and a matter of factly, came back to us and declared it had been already made and therefore cannot be cancelled. Here an argument ensued. We refused declaring our clear intention for the dish. Her rebuttal was that since it was done she can cancel the order at a 50% fee, declaring she had made a concession for us. What was disconcerting was the fact she suggested this mistake was our fault. A fault I was unwilling to take part of, having reminded and clarified the need for two vegan friendly options out of our four dishes ordered. I furthered refused to accept their reasoning that this was a barbecue restaurant and everything was with meat. A fact debatable after our vegan guest did her due diligence and called ahead to confirm her ability to participate in dinner. After almost calling the waiter to our table and potentially reprimanding him before us, the manager relented and agreed to leave the item off our table and its fee off our bill. After this battle for my rights she addressed all further communication to my Korean guest in Korean. We were later asked of we wish to replace our fourth order and given the explanation that the server was still new. Apologizes were exchanged in Korean and tip was given in full. Yes the right decision to support customer service was delivered at the end, but after what struggle? after what soiled experience?
We contemplated desserts, but those offered were the familiar Asian restaurant ice creams. A green tea block and a mango flower. We opted to take our sweet tooth else where in search for more traditional Korean desserts.
Curious, the sign in the women’s washroom asked for all used toilet paper to be placed in the trash can. A request I am unashamed to admit that I disregarded. Maybe the translation actual meant feminine hygiene products and sanitary napkins?
Would I come back? – No.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – No.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – No.
The bad first impression and my need to defend against an accusation aside, there was nothing worth revising in an out of the way plaza. The food was standard, the offerings predictable, and the prices varying from intermediate to steep. Despite this souring experience the dinner was salvage and redeemed upon payment received. Though I can’t help but think it was in part to my Korean guest speaking in her native tongue. The owner apologized for the miscommunication shifting it to her “new” server. My prickly sticking point was the accusation and the request to pay to have an order we didn’t order remove. This was a first for me and enough for me. Don’t deny your cravings.