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June 1, 2012 at 6:00 AM

New Restaurateur Gambles on Milder Korean Menu


Trend-watchers keep naming Korean food as the next hot thing. I love it myself, but — sadly — it’s never quite reached its predicted heights, always seeming too strong and pungent and spicy to win the mainstream appeal it deserves. What we’ve seen instead are restaurateurs mixing Korean with other cuisines, keeping its more aggressive flavors in check and adding tasty twists. That’s the approach of Chan, a new restaurant at Pike Place Market, where owner Heong Soon Park aims to take a Northwest approach to his native cuisine.

He’s shopping at Pike Place, sourcing produce from Frank’s and buying Painted Hills beef and Northwest-caught fish, and featuring dishes like bulgogi sliders with microgreens and smoked chili mayo (on the “modern” side of the menu), or poached black cod with braised daikon (on the “traditional” menu). The star of the dessert menu? “Rice beer sorbet with sesame caramel crunch.”

Park said he’s not just toning down spices and mixing up flavors to appeal to American palates, he’s cooking the way he sees the cuisine heading with a new generation of Koreans.

“We eat smaller portions, much healthier foods, more fresh, more seasonal,” he said.

For instance, big plates of bulgogi beef, popular at more traditional restaurants, is great, but “not everyone eats it every day in Korea, it’s more like every month or two months…it’s like luxury food,” he said.

He put an open kitchen into Chan (it’s at 86 Pine St., the courtyard by the Inn at the Market), after friends asked “how come in all the Korean restaurants you never see the kitchen?” he said.

“It created this intimacy with the cooks, we were able to talk more with customers.”

Kimchi is made in-house. (Park wanted a version without fish sauce, so vegetarians could eat it.) But — in what might be more controversial than his “kimchi bacon paella cheese gratin” — he charges for banchan, the snacky little plates that are traditionally set down unasked on the table. (It’s $3. Makes me think of the restaurants now charging for good bread and butter, a once-unheard-of practice that’s becoming more common.) “I do expect complaints,” he said, but he thinks less food is wasted when people choose to eat it and pay for it.

Park, 30, started emphasizing organic ingredients and local suppliers when he bought Bacco, the juice bar and cafe downstairs from Chan a few years back.

“I have a 2-year-old daughter. I want to feel comfortable if I bring my daughter to my restaurant, feeding her,” he said.

Owning any restaurant had been far from his mind when he first moved to Seattle to join his wife after attending school in Alaska.

“I went to business management school,” he said. His parents owned a restaurant, and “I know how hard it is. I was trying to stay out of it.”

They found Bacco for sale his first time visiting Pike Place Market. “We fell in love with it” he said. He came in every day for three weeks before deciding to take it on.

“We just wanted to be part of Seattle if we were going to live in Seattle.”

He started attending classes after work at the Art Institute of Seattle’s culinary program, learning French and Italian techniques. Despite Bacco’s Italian-ish bent, that cooking style wasn’t for him. He didn’t have the typical Italian grandmother in his background. And he decided to do something that fit with his years growing up in Korea.

So far, Chan has been a comfortable project, and exciting too. “(It’s like), this is something I used to eat in childhood, and I still remember this, but I want to use this and make it fit,” he said.

He’s happy as a restaurateur, but said he’d still never own a big corporate restaurant where you don’t see the character of the place. That’s what he loves about Seattle — you go to Matt’s in the Market or Cafe Campagne and you see the personalities of the people behind them, not just the food.

“I ended up finding my personality is Korean.”

Photo courtesy of Chan Restaurant



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