Just about now -- after December's extravagance -- is when my thoughts turn to bargain columns, for which I usually choose restaurants I'd reviewed favourably within just the past few years on the assumption that they'd still be good. Sadly, the theory doesn't always work, but in today's choices it did.
What's really gratifying is when the restaurant seems to have become even better, like Kimbaek. It's a no-frills little place but tidy and bright, run by a friendly and eager-to-please family. Equally gratifying is the fact that the menu has added a few interesting new dishes, and the prices remain hard to beat, ranging from $9.99 to $10.99.
Meals still start and end in classic Korean fashion, with freebies. There's hot tea at the beginning, a refreshing cinnamon and ginger-spiced cold beverage at the end and, in between, four banchan side dishes -- little saucers of sesame-seasoned bean sprouts, chunks of marinated potato, strips of seaweed and, inevitably, kimchee marinated cabbage.
One of my favourite dishes is haimool pajun -- a crisp, plate-sized pancake laced with bits of octopus, zucchini and scallions. But I also liked one of the new additions, the kimchi jun pancake, streaked with pork and kimchi, and made even more flavourful by a dip of garlic and chili-flecked soy sauce.
Grilled items are prepared in the kitchen, not at the table. The bulgogi beef is OK, but outshone by the beautifully marinated kalbi short ribs, and the zestier (from chili paste) pork kalbikui pork rib. I'd intended trying the newly added kimchi fried rice with vegetables and pork, but confusion in the ordering (on my part) brought me the also-new stir-fried pork with kimchi and vegetables instead. No complaints. though; it was delicious.
The soups are actually main courses, among them gamjatang, with huge chunks of meaty pork neck and a few potatoes. Getting the juicy meat off the bones is a messy process, but it does fall off easily, and although the garlicky broth is red with chili, there's only a slight kick, and the homey, comforting dish could almost pass for supper at your baba's.
Bibimbap comes in a hot stone bowl, with rice that is crunchy at the bottom, piled high with strips of beef and veggies and crowned by a fried egg. Chapchae glass noodles, flecked with bits of beef and vegetables, taste a little bland, but are probably a good starting point for the neophyte. If you're looking for the most heat, you'll probably find it in the squid bokkum, big strips of pleasantly chewy squid stir fried with veggies. Few of the other "spicy" dishes were sinus-clearing, but those who like their food fiery can always ask for more chili paste.
Service is deft and swift. A bonus -- parking immediately adjacent in the little strip mall.
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Water Lily, which also offers adjacent strip mall parking, is a tiny place with just a handful of tables, and reservations are always a good idea. The menu, is as extensive as most other Indian menus, though, with entrées ranging from $8.99 to $13.99 for food that sparkles with intricate, fragrant spicing.
A straightforward aloo tikki is listed among the appetizers, but there's also a separate section of chaats, which lists three exceptional starters ($3.99 each). Among them, the restaurant's signature dish, the wonderful aloo tikki chaat, a more complex version of this vegetable-stuffed fried potato patty, moistened with yogurt and tamarind sauces, and topped by crunchy shreds of pastry. Another standout is paani puri (a.k.a. gool gappe) -- hollow puffs of paper-thin pastry filled with wee bits of potato, chickpeas and tamarind-flavoured liquid. The third is papdi chat, an irresistible combination of diced tomatoes, onion, potatoes and crispy bits of fried dough in a tart-sweet sauce of yogurt and tamarind.
Bite-size chicken malai kebab was moist and delicious in a cheesy coating that packed more of a kick than we'd expected. The spicing is as hot as you want it to be (medium was enough for me) but even the spice-wary should have no problems with the sumptuous shrimp korma in a creamy sauce with cashews and raisins, or the butter chicken in a velvety cream-infused tomato sauce. Sauces for both the lamb curry and the yogurt and almond-enriched beef rogan josh were full of flavour, but only the lamb was tender.
Like most Indian restaurants, this one offers a wide choice of vegan and vegetarian dishes. The curried chickpeas are excellent, and so are the eggplant bharta and okra bhindi massala, both cooked with tomatoes and onions but, unlike other local versions, chopped, rather than mashed.
Dinners include some lovely chutneys, as well as complimentary papadums, but it's worth the extra $2.49 for a sharable order of warm, puffy naans. For heaps more food at less money, a copious dinner buffet goes for $17.99, and a modified one at noon for $11.99. The service is exceptionally attentive and helpful.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.