I never rush to review restaurants as soon as they open, allowing them enough time to settle in and iron out any kinks. Big, well-funded commercial operations should have all the kinks ironed out, but often they don't and, sadly, time isn't always an answer. In some restaurants, the performance is as disappointing after six months as it was at opening.
Family-run ethnic restaurants rarely need that much time, at least not when it comes to the cooking, which is something they've understood all their lives. Still, I usually give them some settling-in time too, but not always and not too much -- the occasional little gem might fold before anybody gets to hear of it. So I'm glad I didn't know that Kiwa was less than a month old at the time of my first visit -- little gems deserve recognition as early as possible.
It's a spare but charming example of less-is-more decor, with walls in muted shades of chocolate and white, and occasional accents of deep burgundy. The Japanese lanterns come in a variety of shapes, the tables are solid, the chairs, though simple, very comfortable, and even the background music is soft and soothing.
More to the point, the Korean food is delicious. Not only that, but along with the usual familiar dishes there's the bonus of some unfamiliar ones I've not found before. The presentations are attractive, the prices are painless, with most entrées from $8.50 to $12.50 (and often generous enough to share), and the colour photographs in the handsomely bound menu make ordering easy.
Banchan -- the complimentary little side dishes -- come with all meals. In the old tradition there were several, but it's been years since I've seen any more than a perfunctory three in any restaurant (and even, occasionally, none). There's always the excellent housemade kimchee -- moderately spicy but full of flavour -- and the simple but seductive, lightly soy-glazed chunks of potatoes. On one visit the third was zucchini with no detectable seasoning, but on another it was intriguingly fish-flavoured tofu. Some of the entrées also include a clear and delicious seaweed broth.
One of the first Korean dishes I ever loved was japchae -- slivers of beef, veggies and mushrooms, stir-fried with translucent glass noodles that absorb the flavour of a soy and sesame-seasoned sauce. Another was haemul pageon -- a seafood pancake that makes a great shared starter for four, or a light lunch for two. The eggy batter is almost omelette-light, laced with green onions and pleasantly chewy strips of octopus, and so large it covers an entire plate.
Two dishes that were new to me have been described as Korean street food, but both would be excellent additions to any menu. Kimmari -- tempura-battered seaweed rolled around japchae noodles and deep-fried -- were a textural and flavourful delight. Ddukbokki -- dense, cylindrical rice cakes with a chewy, jujube-like texture -- are often served in spicy sauces, but here they come in a mild and surprisingly rich cream sauce, floating pieces of bacon, strips of red pepper and a few chunks of broccoli.
The bimbimbap -- a mound of rice topped by veggies and (in our case) spicy pork strips -- wasn't cooked in a stone pot, but in one heavy enough to create those lovely crisp bits of rice at the bottom. There was no egg on top, but a spicy, sweetish sauce mixed in just before eating brings it all together.
There are no table-top grills, and everything is prepared in the kitchen, including the bulgogi -- thin twists of sweetened soy marinated beef grilled with onions, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The somewhat similar but slightly spicier roasted pork slices are equally delicious.
A handsome white oval bowl contains an epic portion of Galbi jjim -- chunks of soy-marinated short ribs, so juicy and tender the meat slides right off the bones. They are simmered with carrots and onions in a savoury brown sauce with undertones of brown sugar which, despite the hints of soy and sesame, had a flavour that could almost have come from a Jewish grandmother's kitchen.
The splendid gamjatang -- a pork bone soup with potatoes, vegetables and enoki mushrooms -- is fiery-red with chili paste but not blistering (although I suspect it can be ordered that way). It can't be eaten delicately, and although the meat is tender you'll have to pick up the huge bones with your fingers to get at all of it. Chopsticks just won't hold them (at least mine couldn't).
Unlike most local Korean restaurants this one offers only one sushi, and it's called kim bap -- a vegetarian version, which I didn't try. There were only two items that I didn't love, and I realize it may be a matter of personal taste -- the cold, soft tofu salad that, despite a nice side sauce, just tasted bland to me, and the nori-topped spicy strips of chicken stir-fried with veggies, which sounded interesting but seemed to lack cohesion.
Kiwa is a genuine family restaurant -- he's in the kitchen, she's out front, and both are charming. You're unlikely to find more attentive and obliging service, or a warmer welcome than you'll get from this pair.