Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Korean, Japanese gem well disguised on Pembina

Fresh, colourful dishes served in small, enchanting restaurant

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Looking at the Google photo of Hiroba I thought, this must have been a particularly bad shot. It just couldn't look like that, I thought, but I was wrong. That's exactly what it looks like -- a drab, almost bunker-like building surfaced by slim oblongs of grey stone. But -- to look on the bright side -- there's no missing it among all those invisible addresses on Pembina, and that can be an asset. Just in case you do miss it, though, watch for the big sign of the Queen Bee Motel, to which it is attached.

In any case, the drabness disappears as soon as you reach the handsome glass door, after which you may gasp in astonishment, as I did, at the polished little bijou within. Walls of big, gleaming ceramic tiles in the palest celadon, accented by a scattering of dark green leaves; mini shoji panels atop the booth dividers; handsome brown metal chairs comfortably upholstered in cherry red, which shows through the decorative cut-outs in the back; round paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling -- they all add up to a particularly enchanting interior. It's also a very small interior -- 40-odd seats, I'd guess -- so reservations are probably a good idea.

The menu is divided between a few Korean dishes and Japanese sushi and sashimi. There are four barbecues only -- all of beef -- which are cooked on a removable, smokeless, table-top grill. And although beef may be the only choice, it is top-notch AAA Angus beef -- so tender and flavourful it had me wishing Korean steak tartare was on the menu. Still, making do with the barbecued beef was hardly a hardship.

Although there are photographs on the menu, they don't tell you much, and descriptions would be helpful. I knew that galbi are short ribs thinly sliced across the bones; wang galbi appears to be thick slices of boneless short ribs; chadori (according to the photograph) seems to be all meat; and bulgogi are slices of marinated steak with veggies ($39 to $42). The menu states that servings are for two, so, with three friends in tow -- and intimidated by that "for two" information -- I ordered the bulgogi for $39, plus an additional single serving at $18. I needn't have -- the regular $39 order was enough for all of us, and that extra serving ended up as the next day's very generous lunch.

The colourful platter was centred by thin slices of beautifully marbled beef which had been marinated in a garlicky and lightly sweetened soy sauce. They were surrounded by slices of onion, broccoli, heaps of enoki mushrooms, and big lengthwise slices of king oyster mushrooms, which have a marvellous meaty texture and great flavour. We had to do our own cooking, but the tabletop grill was easy to control, and nothing was overcooked. However, you do need to keep your eye on it.

The only problem, design-wise, is that once the grill is inserted, there's little room left on the table for the extras, of which there are several. The main course is preceded by a series of complimentary tidbits, so typical of traditional Korean meals. For starters, not just one soup but two -- little bowls of perfectly balanced miso, and an exquisite cool pumpkin soup with just a touch of sweetness -- followed by a delicately dressed little salad. Then came tiny saucers of crisp, paper-thin nori; steamed potato shreds; kimchi (with more flavour than heat); pickled radish; and marinated zucchini. Some may vary from day to day.

Bibim bap is one of the few other Korean dishes on the menu. It's not my favourite kind (in a stone bowl, with crispy rice at the bottom), but it's still one of the town's better versions, the rice piled high with julienned veggies, shiitake mushrooms and plenty of that excellent beef. It's scented with sesame oil and topped by a fried egg, all to be mixed together at table and spiced, if wished, with red pepper sauce ($11.95). Also available is the locally rare hoi dup bap of assorted sashimi and vegetables with rice ($11.95), and a hand-written sign just inside the entrance announces the availability of gamja tang -- a spicy pork stew.

Sashimi may be limited to just tuna or salmon but both were dewy fresh, sweet-tasting and generously sliced (nine pieces for $11.95). Nigiri sushi are identified on the menu only as a la carte sushi ($2.75 to $3.75 for two pieces). The negitoro topping of fatty tuna with green onion and sesame oil was good, the tilapia a little bland, but both would have been better with rice that was less dry and had more flavour.

There was no problem with the rice in the rolls though, possibly because there was more filling than rice. The tuna avocado roll, the truly spicy scallop roll and the unakyu roll of barbecued eel with cucumber and unagi sauce were all excellent ($4.25 to $4.95). But I really fell in love with the mango fry, a terrific concoction of mango, cooked shrimp, smoked salmon and fish eggs that was lightly breaded and deep fried ($7.95).

Other special rolls range from $6.25 to $11.95, and there are also bento boxes at lunch from $8.95 to $11.95. A heart-warming touch was the complimentary four pieces of salmon and avocado rolls that turned up with our orders. Japanese barley tea was included as well.

Service was charming and attentive, but although communication can be a problem, the staff couldn't be nicer.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2012 D3

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Updated on Friday, September 7, 2012 at 10:36 AM CDT: adds fact box

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