Since moving to Montréal a few years ago, I have accepted a few culinary facts about the city:
(1) The baguettes are always amazing
(2) “Vegetarian? No problem, we have fish!”
(3) The quality of Korean restaurants are dreadful
File this under complaint number 8,356 about the gaping hole of good ethnic eats in la belle province. Alas, I have come to terms with the lack of quality and authentic Korean restaurants in Montréal with heavy pangs in my heart. I get it, I was spoiled with an excellent array of Korean food during the first twenty years of my life as I grew up in the Toronto suburbs where a subpar Korean restaurant would never last more than a year. Torontonians, both those of Korean heritage and seasoned Korean food diners, demand some decency when grabbing Korean grub, whether it is Korean barbecue, KFC (aka Korean Fried Chicken), hipster Korean tacos, momofuku (or those inspired by the inventive Japanese-Korean fusion eating trend), late-night pork bone soup, or just a traditional eatery. See? So many different types of Korean restaurants are out there! Why not bring some good ones to Montréal, I ask?
But in the past year I suddenly became of aware of Omma, a very cute-looking Korean restaurant with its logo block letters dressed in varying floral patterns and the promise that the food by chef Mi Kyum Kim is “made with love and the way her mom taught her.” (“Omma” means “mom” in Korean.) Also, the restaurant is located smack dab in the middle of hipsterville, aka Mile End, where Arcade Fire, man buns, and ironic moustaches live together in a healthy ecosystem. Since the restaurant’s inception in 2011, the habitants of this male hair-friendly neighbourhood have open their tattooed hearts to the modern Korean establishment so wide that Omma has been named to the number one spot for the Best Korean Restaurant by Cult MTL for a few years now. And with a good reason — Omma knows how to inject the ho-hum Korean restaurant scene in Montréal with some quality goods.
Since I happened to walk past the restaurant’s beautiful corner street patio on an early fall evening, I plotted my first visit for months. It took time, but I finally got there this summer. First off: I would say that this restaurant serves modern Korean cuisine. Not traditional. Not really that trendy either, if you save for the assortment of really tasty cocktails such a mojitos made with soju, the Korean rice liquor. You will find a good edit of some of the popular Korean dishes in the western world, such as the Korean pancake starter, or Pajun; Korean fried chicken, called Dak nalgae tigim; and Korean beef rib (galbi or kalbi), a variation called Entrecôte Coréen on the menu. Some other less well known Korean dishes are available, including Yukaejang, a fiery hot beef stew; sashimi rice bowl (Riz au sésame); and for true kimchi lovers, Kimchi jigae, a hot (as in temperature) and hot (as in spicy) pork and rice cake stew in a kimchi broth.
So here’s where the modern part comes in. Along with the traditional Korean dishes, Omma serves up some unexpected items with a globalized perspective not often seen at a Korean restaurant such as salmon tartare with a wasabi dressing as a starter, seared tuna steak, and red curry coconut lamb. My date tried this Agneau épicé (photo above) and he loved this meaty red curry dish. The sauce was truly Thai style, a giant bowl of julienned carrots, asparagus, generous chunks of lamb, and topped with diced scallions (a Korean imperative). To start, we ordered the Ojingaw, deep-fried calamari drenched in a tangy chili lime sauce on top of a bed of greens, and a small order of Mandoo Gook made with the vegetarian option of shiitake broth and tofu raviolis, or dumplings. The Ojingaw was a definite hit, while the Mandoo Gook (photo below) was good but not amazing. Note, however, that I am a harsh critic of Korean mandoos (dumplings) as I love this stuff, and hand-making these babies brings back happy childhood memories with my mom. I found that the soup could have used a bit more seasoning and that the dumplings themselves could have used a bit of a kick as well, but the mandoos were large and hearty; 7/10, would bang.
For my main course, I ordered the Dol sot Bibimbap, the ever popular hot stone bowl rice dish, and I was subjected to one of the most endearing restaurant service experiences in my life. For those of you who have ordered dol sot bibimbap, the dish comes served in a piping hot (do not touch!) stone bowl where a mound of rice is topped with various vegetable banchan, or Korean side dishes that are often pickled, and meat or tofu. A (fried) egg often tops the bowl, a squirt of hot sauce is obligatory, and the point of the dish is that it is served right from the stove top to the diner. While the dish is sizzling, the diner should immediately utilize their spoon to mix up the components of the dish together, searing the rice and toppings together into a very hot, satisfying mess. So when my bibimbap came served, crackling hot and ready for a party, I sat there waiting for our kimchi combo as accompaniment and a new Korean cocktail.
Upon seeing that I was sitting unmoved after being served my bibimbap, the first server appeared at my side and gently inquired, “Is this your first time eating dol sot bibimbap?” Concerned eyes lay upon me, I became embarrassed and stammered, “Oh, yes, I know, I know I’m supposed to stir this thing, I’m just waiting for my drink.” The server seemed consoled and moved on. Then within fifteen seconds the second server sprung by my side with the same question. This time, I felt like I really should just stir this dish and make everyone less nervous. My date was laughing, watching me, whom we were both very sure was the only Korean (and the only other coloured) person in this restaurant, seemingly looking confused as to how to eat authentic Korean food in Montréal. In all honesty, I felt happy: Omigod. I am just like everyone else! I am just another diner in this restaurant! After growing up with so many other Asians in Toronto, sometimes I feel a bit different but not in a good way here in Québec. But at Omma, the (white) servers did not assume that, because of my yellow skin, I must be an expert on All Things Asian as all Asians are the same you know, an attitude that I often encounter. Seriously, I commend the servers at Omma for their lack of stereotyping.
Service, as previously exemplified, was definitely one of the high points of my first visit. Also, the food tasted like what good Korean food should taste like — I have been many times disappointed with meh Korean food throughout so many spots in the city. Even the non-Korean-style offerings, notably the Spicy Lamb (Agneau épicé), had my date swooning that this was the best lamb dish he had ever tasted. Cocktails were super tasty, and I noticed that the restaurant had a delegated bartender, something that I happily see in more modern takes on Korean eating establishments. Sadly, Omma’s cocktail list is not available online but you will have to trust me on that the Korean-inspired drinks were fun and tasty, and not in that overly saccharine kind of way.
As for my few grievances about Omma, I was sad but not surprised that we were not served a complimentary assortment of banchan, or Korean side dishes, that all Korean restaurants serve right after you order so that you can much on some kimchi and other amuse-bouche-like offerings as you wait on your order. We did get free small servings of cabbage kimchi, but we ordered the Kimchi Combo with two larger kimchi portions (daikon and cabbage) as solace. I spotted two namul, or seasoned vegetable banchan, dishes, as well as a seaweed banchan, cucumber banchan, and kim (seaweed nori) offered from $2 to $6 CDN. My theory on why many Montréal Korean restaurants do not serve complimentary banchan is because Korean food is still small-time here, and perhaps in the past many freely distributed banchan dishes went to waste due to unseasoned diners. Just a thought.
Another downside to Omma: The prices are deceivingly steep. Historically, Korean restaurants in Canada were either cheap or moderate-cheap, but nowadays I can spot the gleaming new entries to the Korean food landscape with their trendy, food truck lingo dotting all over their expensive menu. The restaurant is called Omma or mom, but this is a blinged-out lady who may not afford a Louis Vuitton but splurges on a Michael Kors bag and steps out in Tory Burch flats. Not that there is anything wrong with either of these items (sigh, I have knock-off Tory Burch flats), but don’t let the restaurant’s adorable logo and name fool you into thinking this is one of those cantines in Korea Town Christie where they serve you ddeokbokki and other home-style dishes for pennies. By ordering two appetizers, two main dishes, and four cocktails, and a side order of kimchi our final bill hovered around $100 CDN before tax and tip.
One critique I had about the menu was that I saw that the Chap Chae (or japchae), the sweet potato vermicelli noodle dish tossed in a slightly sweetened sesame oil and soy sauce dressing, with julienned carrots, spinach, and other vegetables, was listed as a main dish. I saw a few fellow diners choose the Chap Chae as their main course, and I think they were expecting something a bit more akin to Chinese wheat noodles or Italian pasta. While I love chap chae, and it’s a staple for all celebratory dinners in Korean, this is more of a side dish and in fact, it is often served as banchan. I find that eating a large amount of just chap chae as the main course can be a bit of an endeavour, but I mean, if people can eat salads as a main course (which I also do) then I guess anything is really possible as a meal.
Will we be back? I definitely hope so soon! My date and I both agreed and we really liked Omma, and I would have to say that I agree with Cult MTL — it really is the best Korean restaurant in the city, at least in central Montréal. With all the flowery print patterns, its hipster zip code, trendy cocktails, and lack of visible Koreans in the house (both on the service and customer sides), I was actually expecting this all to be fluff, that these were decoys hiding the fact that good Korean food doesn’t live here. Well it does. And I found it, Montréal. I will happily be that token Korean person giving a thumbs up to Cult MTL’s assessment for the Best Korean restaurant. You’re welcome.
Upcoming: A Tour of Asian Eating in Toronto