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Haemil Korean Restaurant

by Sally Hammond


I well remember my first bibimbap. I had flown overnight to Seoul, and was met at the airport by my guide on a misty grey October morning. After a couple of hours of a temple tour, my feet hurt (there'd been no time to check into the hotel and change) and I was chilled, tired and ready to stop.

Nearby in a small restaurant, we sat on low stools and in a few minutes a large dark bowl appeared in front of each of us, breathing steam and an appetising fragrance into the cool air. No doubt it was a combination of fatigue and hunger, but that moment it seemed the most beautiful food I had ever seen.

Better still as I explored the depths of this mystery mix, the carbo-rich contents working their magic on my mood, I discovered at the bottom that the rice had crusted against the scalding base of the stone pot into a crisp and  savoury bonus.

It was a dish of benchmark flavours and textures and one I was determined to replicate many times. So within days of returning to Sydney I sought out the nearest Korean restaurant, dragging my mystified husband with me, and confidently ordered bibimbap. Imagine my disappointment when it arrived scarcely warm and totally lacking the incendiary heat - not to mention the crust - of my Seoul experience.

Over the years I have tried many times in Australia and even in Korea to recapture that first bibimbap experience. Always disappointed, beginning to question my memory, I was sure I had happened on the only place able to make bibimbap that way. And I had no idea of its location.

Until last week, that is. Finally in a small bright restaurant near Circular Quay in Sydney, in a room dominated incongruously by a grand piano, finally I had stone-pot bibimbap as it should be.

Joshua Kwak is the owner of Haemil restaurant and it was he who stirred my pot of rice and vegetables and raw egg yolk; he who after a quick look at me decided how much (plenty!) of pepper sauce he should add; and he who said firmly: "Now, let it sit for a moment so it can go crusty at the bottom."

The magic phrase. This was what I had waited for so long. Without question, I obediently let it sit to do its trick, even though the aromas weaving up out of it were almost too much to resist.

There was no chance the dish would go cold while standing. These stone pots are heated in the oven until they almost glow and then placed on a heatproof stand. Anything within them stays truly hot. What's more, my bibimbap crusted to perfection at the bottom, reminding me of that first grey day in Korea and a temple courtyard with persimmons glowing on bare branches.

As we ate, Joshua Kwak did another thing he does so well. He played the piano for us all, piece after piece of faultless classics. Incongruous, yes, yet it has become part of the appeal of this place.

Haemil's unpretentious menu has many other dishes. My friends had a tofu soup that had them in raptures. A diner on a website raves about Haemil's altang (fish roe soup), others the chicken and ginseng soup, several saying this is the place to find "the best Korean food in Sydney."

I'd like to try some of these dishes, but my guess is that when I go again (which I think will have to be very soon) I just can't see me resisting that bibimbap.

Haemil Restaurant, Gateway, 601/1 Macquarie Place, Sydney.


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