Il Bun Ji
A friend and I have these debates about who makes the best dolsot bibimbap in Toronto. I'm a sucker for the sizzling bowl of goodness at Buk Chang Dong Soon To Fu and in a pinch I'll wolf down the offerings at HoSu, Ka Chi or bibimQ. But what I won't do anymore is order it up at the Koreatown bastion that is Il Bun Ji. Yet that's exactly where my friend insists it sets the local standard.
Having eaten a number of times at Il Bun Ji, I know the menu can be a bit hit and miss. In the miss quadrant is the bibimbap but despite my warnings I couldn't convince my stone-bowl obsessed dinner date to order something else off a menu that features more than 100 options including sushi, sashimi, galbi, bulgogi, donburi and an assortment of other Japanese and Korean specialties. For a full look at what's available, check out the embedded menus below.
I have to admit there's nothing inherently wrong with the bibimbap at Il Bun Ji. Like the other spots around town it comes with all the usual ingredients - crispy rice (cooked in the sizzling stone bowl), a slightly undercooked egg and seasoned cucumber, mushrooms, bean sprouts and spinach. But it just seems to consistently underwhelm - like this time as it arrived a bit on the lukewarm side, the rice oilier than it was crispy and the collection of fillings somewhat smaller than the norm.
So even though I'm likely to order bibimbap nine times out of ten when I eat at a Korean restaurant, at Il Bun Ji I tend to be more adventurous, if still playing it a bit conservative. I've found the sashimi decent enough. It beats the offerings at many of the places further east along Bloor, although it's slightly more expensive. Better are the shrimp and vegetable tempura, artfully displayed as huge tents that create conversation pieces when plopped in the middle of the table and shared among friends.
On this night I decide to have the hwae dup bap (above) - assorted slices of fresh raw fish and vegetables garnished with tamago, cucumbers and fish roe ($12.95). I'm told by our server that the way to eat this is to mix it with the accompanying rice and stir in some kochujang, a tart ketchup-colored red bean paste. The slices of fish are fresh and mostly melt like butter. There's an even mix of salmon and some white fish (mackerel?) which pair nicely with the shredded carrots, sprouts and other vegetables.
It's a tasty dish although I'm not sure I'd order it again. Consistently average are all the free appetizers that arrived prior to the main attractions. As soon as we placed our order we were brought amuse bouches of congee (a bit bland) and Japanese salad (ditto), followed by miso soup (standard) and an assortment of Korean pickled favourites (below) like pickled bean sprouts, kimchee, daikon and sweet dried soybeans.
It was all wrapped around what was generally agreed to be their consistently inattentive service - not bad if you're looking for long periods of romantic non-interruption, but a less than ideal situation if thirsty for another round of Korean beer, some tea re-fills or a new set of chopsticks.
I should note that what probably draws me back here are the collection of private tatami-esque rooms that make eating out a little more interesting and intimate than the usual. Plus with a menu this big I figure I'm bound to eventually find something that makes these trials with the bibimbap seem like ancient, misguided episodes of Korean dining misadventure.