Seoul Soul is a five-month-old Korean diner, owned by a team of three interior designers, and right now its the place to be on Victoria Street. Age seems no barrier, ethnicity no prerequisite and income irrelevant.
The narrow interior shop space the owners took over a third of the café next door seats about 16 on bar stools at high shared timber tables with a charcoal grill at the centre of each setting. Intimate and adjacent conversations are hard to ignore, but thats part of the charm. Stools around the open kitchen in the foyer area hold another half-a-dozen patrons given an excellent view of kitchen machinations.
Insu Kim, the designer with the largest share of this restaurant, describes the food as modern Korean, admitting that while it borrows names and flavours from his homeland, its not really authentic Korean food. Its a bit sweeter and less spicy, more Westernised, he says, as is the borrowed concept of tapas-style sharing dishes.
In the short time its been open, Seoul Soul has altered course too. The central grills at each place setting were too messy and too smoky and are no longer used. And the hoped-for liquor licence, which will see the tapas section of the menu extended, is still pending.
Staff are efficient, but offer little assistance and are reluctant to make suggestions on menu combinations or serving sizes.
The current selection of a dozen or so Korean tapas dishes include fried rice cakes, dumplings, char-grilled scallop, prawn or shiitake mushroom skewers and seaweed rolls and seafood patties all with ingredients borrowed from neighbouring cuisines.
A foursome of uninspiring pork dumplings chewy casings, nondescript fillings that Im really not sure were made in-house, arrived on a long, dark pottery dish, with a scattering of kimchi-style pickled and shredded vegetables and a small dish of sesame-sprinkled soy.
More interesting was a soy dduk bok ki, which Kim describes as classic Korean street food. Served in a rustic white bowl, its a generous offering of soy-flavoured broth studded with a fascinating collection of noodle-like rice cakes, flat pieces of fish cake, shredded vegetables, a fried seaweed roll and a couple of fried spring rolls (that again seemed pre-purchased). It was intriguing, but in the end a little bland and Im not sure Id order it again.
From the char-grill barbecue section, dishes intended for sharing arrive on a metal hotplate. Stir-fried spicy prawns are a generous offering of a dozen or so plump, good-quality prawns tossed with onion, beanshoots, cabbage and shredded carrot, sprinkled with black sesame seeds. A side order of rice easily helps this cover two appetites as a shared main.
The Dosirak (or meal bucket, a Korean version of the Bento box) is a house specialty and in both appearance and compilation is quite a hit. Timber bowls that look like tiny barrels each arrive with rice, salad and finger food. The beef bulgogi (marinated meat) has been thinly sliced and marinated in a thick, slightly sweet soy sauce. The meat is delicate and incredibly tender. The finger food component includes another of those questionable spring rolls and a kind of crumbed samosa. A few bits of greenery and some sweet, pickled vegetables add colour and texture.
I liked Seoul Soul for its gutsy, modern Melbourne fit-out, its dead-cheap prices and its attempt to bring Korean flavours to Vietnamese-dominated Victoria Street.
It will be even more of a hit with a liquor licence.
I cant personally vouch for its similarity to modern Korean dining venues or the authenticity of its food, but to diners with $50 to spend on a cheap and cheerful meal for two, I guess it doesnt matter.
The Verdict Worth a look
The narrow entry is crowded with diners huddled around the boxed open kitchen as they queue for tables or takeaway. Wire mesh panels, ply and polished metal surfaces provide industrial chic, lit by caged bulbs and softened by lush outdoor plants. A narrow, hinged window reveals the action at the stoves, while behind the green-framed glass door diners huddle at high timber benches. Shared grills at each setting explain the boxed metal exhaust system overhead. Factory-look shelving, white tiles and dark timber wainscoting complete the pared-back theme.