I recently watched Anthony Bourdain on television, digging into live, still-wriggling baby octopuses in a Korean restaurant. I'm game for just about anything (I have eaten raw shellfish that cringed when squirted with lemon juice) but I think I'd draw the line at that one. In any case that's something we can't have here, or, for that matter, much Korean-style seafood of any kind. In fact, most of our local Korean menus are limited to the best-known standards. Still I love their clear, robust flavours, and I'm grateful for what I can have, which was one reason that brought me back to Nou Eul Tor, where the only octopus I had was the wee bits in the pajon pancake (about which more later).
I last reviewed this cosy little place about four years ago, but recently a few readers have reported that the menu had been enlarged. Also that the food was delicious. Delicious was something I already knew -- 31/2 stars worth at the time -- although I did comment on the absence of any kind of tea, on the difficulties in communication and on the very limited menu. I returned in hopes of finding new dishes to try, but the reports had it wrong. If anything, the menu seems even shorter than it was. Gone, for instance, is kalbi -- thin slices of marinated grilled short ribs sliced across the bone -- which I had liked here in the past, and which is standard on most Korean menus.
Nor is communication much easier than it had been, but now tea is not only available, but included with all meals -- corn tea, with the odd but pleasing flavour of roasted corn. One thing that hasn't changed, astonishingly, is the prices, which haven't risen by so much as a penny -- still almost ridiculously low, with most items from $6.89 to $9.89. But one thing that has changed is the cooking, which was always good, and is even better these days, rising from 31/2 stars to four.
One of the nicer new touches is the complimentary congee, which arrives shortly after you are seated -- hot, savoury, soothing rice soup. Once you've ordered, the complimentary banchan side dishes are brought -- still only four, and nothing out of the ordinary, but much more generous than they were; bigger, in fact, than most of those miniscule saucers served elsewhere. They change from day to day, but always include chunks of a particularly flavourful kimchee that packs a potent punch of chili (the streaks of red are a tip-off to the degree of heat). I didn't get my favourite boiled potatoes, just bean sprouts, cucumbers and turnip -- all short on seasoning, but crunchy and refreshing.
The pan-fried half-moon-shaped dumplings have become even juicier and tastier, stuffed with a smidgen of meat and veggies and a hefty dose of garlic, accompanied by a tangy dip of vinegar-spiked soy sauce. I'm equally addicted to the two kinds of pancakes, both big and substantial enough to share, and both delicious: gamjajon -- a glorious puff of potato pancake; and pajon -- based on rice flour, streaked with scallions and (although the menu doesn't say so) laced sparingly with nice, chewy bits of octopus.
There are no permanent table-top grills, but portable grills are brought to table for certain dishes. One of them is gochuchang sambyopsal -- a do-it-yourself dish of pork belly strips, augmented, for those who dare, by whole cloves of garlic, also to be cooked on the grill. It comes with scissors to cut the meat slices, and tongs to turn them with, but keep an eye on them, making sure they don't burn. When they turn crisp and brown dip each slice into sesame oil, coat it with the fierce red chili paste or (for the spice timid) thick sweet bean paste and wrap it in a leaf of romaine to eat out of hand.
Bulgogi beef is probably the best-known of the Korean barbecues, and the most expensive item on the menu at $11.89. Thin slices of tender steak are marinated in subtly sweetened soy sauce, redolent of garlic and sesame oil, then grilled in the kitchen with mixed vegetables and served on a red-hot platter. Chapchae is another Korean favourite, a seductive and slightly sweet stir-fry of slippery bean starch vermicelli tossed with slivers of veggies and beef and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
The bibimbap isn't made in the usual fashion. The julienned mixed vegetables and a few shreds of beef come in one bowl, topped by a still runny fried egg, and the rice in another bowl -- not the traditional piping hot stone pot, so you don't get that crunch of crust at the bottom. They come with a range of sauces (some incendiary) to season the ingredients after they are mixed together, and even without the stone pot this was one of the tastier versions I've had.
No desserts, not even ice cream. But Nou Eul tor is an attractive place, done in pale, bamboo-patterned wallpaper alternating with dark burgundy coloured panels, with Korean-sounding music tinkling softly in the background. Despite the difficulty in communication, the service by the sole woman out front is so helpful and warm you won't mind a bit.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.