“Can I park on the other side of the street?” was the first thing out of my mouth when I walked into Imonay on Bloor West in Koreatown. “Hello! Welcome!” was the first thing out of Mom, running front of house. “I’m not sure,” said Dad. “Show me where you parked?”
We shoved past a new band of patrons on their way in (“Hello! Welcome!”) and stood on the sidewalk, considering the row of cars parked on the north side of Bloor. “No machines, it’s probably okay,” said Dad, turning back to me and smiling. I appreciated the concern, but moved my car down to a nearby Green P anyway. I’ve tangled with parking ambiguity in the Annex before. I’ve never won.
I came back to the restaurant:
And back inside, considered the beautiful decor (not pictured) and the menu with Margie, my husband, Margie’s 12 year old and my 5 year old. The main reason the decor is not pictured is because I have some discomfort in sticking my camera directly in someone’s face, particularly while they’re eating, and let’s just say that Imonay didn’t suffer from a great deal of elbow room. It’s a small place, maybe ten tables, some stuck together, most of them deuces and a couple of four tops. Mom presides over the room from behind the cash register and a large tea samovar next to a giant stack of thick, asian tea cups, the tall kind without handles that you can wrap your cold hands around in your non-centrally heated dwelling. The chairs are rock hard, and probably didn’t look that cool even in 1982, the year they were probably made.
The design philosophy overall could be most charitably described as “spartan” and the fact that the food is the first priority is hinted at on the large, carefully handwritten bilingual (English/Korean) chalkboard menu. There are also small card menus, on which everything is helpfully grouped into categories such as “The Noodles” and “The Sizzles”. Service is warm, friendly, nigh-paternalistic, and in fine Asian tradition, immediate. Almost as soon as you sit down, Mom is at your side and ready to take your order.
To give Mom something to do, we ordered some dumplings while we thought some more about the menu:
And just minutes later, this plate of crispy golden beefy beauties hit our table. They’re more like gyoza than Chinese dumplings: thin dough, a nice, flavourful filling with beef, onions, green onions, probably chives, I’m not sure what all else, served with a very pleasant dipping sauce of soy, vinegar, chile, perhaps some mirin and a few more snipped chives. But even the 5 year old loved them and they rapidly disappeared.
When Mom returned (a fourth time), we asked for the next instalment: dumplings, Round II (because when my 5 year old will eat something, you stick with a winner), a kimchi pancake (my husband wanted vegetable but Mom talked him out of that), Kang Bi Ji, Kal Guk Soo, and Kalbi gogi. Korean Army Stew was also available (“canned ham, instant noodles, [something else], and cheese”) but we chickened out. None of us ever joined the army, for good reasons.
The first thing out were the Banchan dishes, fully eight in attendance, all the delicious little sides that come with most mains at a Korean restaurant:
There were some of the usual suspects, like kimchi, the crunchy, yummy soybean sprouts in sesame oil dressing and the bright green zucchini ribbon salad, but there were also a few slightly less typical items…some kind of blanched green leaf (not spinach) in mild chiles, lightly pickled turnip, strips of tofu cooked in soy, sriracha and Korean BBQ sauce, wafer thin slices of cooked celery and best of all, julienne shards of parboiled yukon gold potato tossed in a simple marinade.
Next thing out were the dumplings (redux) and the Kimchi Pancake:
This was, well, kimchi chopped up, mixed with batter and quickly pan fried in a fair amount of oil, although I hasten to add that this created a crispy, rather than greasy effect. It was cut into pizza-like slices and like pizza, flopped a little at the tip when you picked it up, but it was tasty and we quickly finished it off. It wasn’t horrendously spicy: kimchi is available at all points on a spectrum ranging from pleasantly warmish to The Surface of the Sun. Imonay’s house brand is more on the mild end of things.
Next came the Kang Bi Ji, bubbling malevolently and releasing clouds of camera-obscuring steam. Kang Bi Ji is something that’s so down-home Korean, it’s hard to find in a Korean restaurant, at least in Canada. South (and I’m sure to a much greater degree, North) Korea might be pretty hot in the summer, but it can also be miserably cold in the winter (see remarks about central heating, above) and Kang Bi Ji is just the sort of stick-to-your-ribs specialty people needed to invent in order to cope. It’s a simple stew of ground soybeans:
It comes in a little hot-pot sort of thing and when you stir up the creamy goodness, your spoon quickly encounters a thick sludge of ground beans under the surface. Mom told us to put the dipping sauce from the dumplings on it, and be generous, and she came back to point out that I hadn’t put enough on: it did help a lot, because Kang Bi Ji has a lot in common with porridge, it has to be said. I thought there was supposed to be a little pork in there, somewhere, but none was in evidence. It was a bit on the grainy side, but still very comforting and pleasant, particularly with the zing of the sauce to liven things up. Very good winter fare.
Then came the red bean noodles, or Kal Guk Soo (“special Imonay recipe”):
This was also a bit simpler than expected. Hand made, hand cut Korean wheat noodles, cooked in a red bean and chicken broth. That was it. This definitely needed some dipping sauce assistance, and unless you really love red beans or the taste of refritos, it might not be your thing. The noodles, however, were very good and perfectly cooked. Chewy, textured, well made.
The Kalbi gogi (or “sesame meat” as the five year old called it), was pretty classic straight up Kalbi ribs:
However, served with purple rice, which was an unusual touch:
The ribs were fried in BBQ sauce with some thick slices of white mushroom and garnished with sesame. They tasted fine, but didn’t stand out particularly in the quality of meat or the execution. The rice was a bit chewier than usual, a bit earthier, a nice compliment to the various sauces and tastes at the table rather than being a completely neutral white foil.
When Mom came to clear our dishes away, she pointed accusingly at the fair amount of Kal Guk Soo still sitting in the bottom of the bowl. “You didn’t like it?” she said, disapprovingly. No, not exactly….we sheepishly tried to explain that the noodles were really wonderful but the sauce was a bit beany, and, well, everything else was so good that we didn’t have any more room. Her disappointment was palpable, but she put a brave face on when she brought us the cheque (after we had sat around chatting and drinking tea for some time: there’s no bum’s rush at Imonay). It’s home cooking, for sure: complete with guilt trip.
Imonay House Restaurant, 665 Bloor Street West (416) 533-2850 (website? Ha ha. No, but they do have a Facebook page). $60.00 for 3 adults, one 12 year old, one five year old, tax, tip, bottomless tea and motherly concern/rebuke included.