And you thought all the Korean restaurants along Robson Street were just cheap beer-and-bibimbap joints for kids (or foreign language students). So did I. But then the candlelight flickering inside Sura Korean Royal Cuisine caught my eye.
That was a few years ago (Sura has been around for four). I've been meaning to visit ever since. Then last week, Sura won best Korean at the Vancouver Magazine restaurant awards, finally edging out the perennial favourite, Burnaby's Hanwoori. To someone looking for an excuse, this seemed like reason enough for an overdue review.
Most of the eateries in Little Korea, the West End strip along Robson bordered by Nicola and Denman streets, are loud, steamy dives that cater to a young clientele. Sura's sophisticated decor – which includes pillared wooden banquettes tossed with embroidered pillows and curtained off with silky drapery – appears much more mature. (Although the owners probably would not mind capturing some of the late-night crowd, judging by the sandwich board outside advertising a 50-per-cent student discount between 9 and 10:30 p.m.)
Although the kitchen purports to offer "authentic Korean royal cuisine" (classic regional dishes cooked lighter, with more emphasis on presentation), I was surprised to discover that the set dinner menus are available only by request, with three days advance notice, for parties of four people or more.
Still, Sura's regular menu items do hit higher than the average home-style hotpot. Take its galbi, for instance. Before dining at Sura, I'd only ever had L.A. galbi (without even knowing that these ubiquitous grilled short ribs were invented in the California city with the largest Korean population outside Korea).
As with most Korean barbecue, L.A. galbi is marinated in a sweet sauce built on soy, garlic, sugar or honey and some sort of fruit juice (often pear). But L.A. galbi is a specific style of cut (sometimes called flanken-style or cross-cut short ribs), sawed through the bone into thin slices. Some say the flat bone segment in each portion lends the meat a desirable gaminess, but this method also makes it easier to pre-process and freeze in industrial-sized quantities.
Sura, however, has no L.A. galbi on the menu. The chef serves only traditional wang galbi, which means king ribs and is sometimes called tong galbi or English cut. Separated from the bone, the ribs are sliced across the grain into thick pieces that are butterflied open into long, thin strips. The butchery is much more difficult and the meat meltingly voluptuous. Forget steak. The next time I crave beef, I will come here just for this.
I've had better bibimbap, a rice dish served in a hot stone bowl. Although beautifully topped with precisely layered portions of julienned carrot and zucchini, shredded pork, tiny enoki mushrooms, transparent mung bean noodles and bean sprouts, the marinade gave them an unctuously furry, tongue-coating mouth feel.
That said, the service was surprisingly solicitous. The waiter who delivered the bibimbap dove in with two spoons, stirring in the hot pepper paste, breaking up the egg yolk glistening on top and patting it down on the sizzling stone so the rice would bake into a crispy crust. I've never experienced tableside service at any other restaurant in this neighbourhood.
Lunch was an entirely different experience. The service was slow, the waitresses were brusque, and the dirty dishes eventually piled up so high we had to start shoveling them over to an empty table.
But we did eat a feast of princely proportions. The set lunch menu comes in two sizes for $15 or $20 a person. The latter includes 12 courses, plus three side dishes and a sweet drink for dessert that just kept coming and coming.
Some of the dishes – cold kimchi soup with sour green-apple slivers, whipped potato croquettes encased in a golden crisp, sweet-and-sour halibut in a bright, clean orange sauce – were amazing. There was plenty of fiery spice in a comforting kimchi pancake, shredded pork bulgogi and a deeply stewed oxtail soup.
The bossam was an entire tray of boiled pork belly, thinly sliced, daubed with chili paste and spread over purple wafers of pickled daikon for rolling. The combination of flavours was so clever the fatty wraps tasted refreshingly acidic yet slid down the throat like parcels of silk.
There were a few duds, including stodgy stewed short ribs, mung bean noodles overwhelmed by sesame oil, and sweet and sour pork fried in floury batter, plopped over a bland, sticky sauce.
But at $42 for two, after tax, who would complain? The kids don't know what they're missing.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution