While Thailand is definitely crazy about all things “Korea”, there seems to be a discernible lack of proper fine dining Korean restaurants here in Bangkok. That’s all changed, however, with the recent opening of Juksunchae, which puts an inventive fine dining spin on bibimbap, bulgogi, and almost everything in-between.
“What you have in your mind about what bibimbap is, we’re going to completely change that,” announces Henry Lee, the affable Head Chef at Juksunchae restaurant. As he continues with his introduction to this newly launched, Korean fine dining spot – discreetly tucked away on the fifth floor of the Woodberry Common building on Soi Ruamrudee – I notice his manner is confident, and his English is impeccable. Naturally I assume he must be some hotshot just in from Seoul.
“No, I’m from Toronto,” he tells me, and in that instant our bromance takes flight, seeing as how I’m a former Torontonian as well.
We immediately begin swapping stories about the “old country”, including the fact that Henry graduated from the culinary management program at George Brown College – one of Canada’s top chef training centers. He made the move to Thailand about seven years ago, together with his Thai wife, and shares that when he first heard about Juksunchae he knew it was where he ultimately wanted to be.
“I was very excited because this is not just Korean BBQ, or fried chicken, or Bingsu. This is something completely different, completely new. I love the idea of taking Korean food, and Korean recipes, and ramping it up a notch.”
Although Canadian by birth, Henry’s lineage is very much Korean, and he has cultivated a deep interest in his culinary heritage. This is illustrated when he describes the first of five amuse-bouche plates to arrive; A very tasty, springroll-sized bite he calls Yuza, Moon-Eo Dubu Bugakwhich rests delicately atop a presentation bowl filled with dried red beans.
“Bugak is a traditional, but very uncommon cooking technique,” he begins. “Typically, you use a vegetable, but in this case it’s tofu skin, and you dry it for two days then deep fry it, so it has a light crispy texture. Inside is minced octopus with yuzu dressing, along with cucumber and shallots.”
A few minutes later the Eo Mandu arrives, which is rather unceremoniously translated on the menu as ‘fish dumpling’. The presentation, however, is captivating, as is the breakdown. “This is highlighting the royal cuisine of Korea,” Henry says. “Instead of a white flour dough wrapping they were given a white fish filet as a wrapping. Here we took sea bream and made it into a fish mousseline, and inside we have minced pork, grilled kimchi, and homemade bacon. On top is seaweed powder and chive emulsion.
And please use the bones sticking out as a fork,” he warns. “We once had a customer who tried to eat the whole thing and I had to run across the kitchen to stop them.”
Well, that’s one of the advantages of having an open kitchen, I muse, as I observe the team busy at work preparing the next dish. Design-wise, their cooking area is fairly minimalist, with a black, white and steely gray color scheme offset by a metre-high, bright red, egg-shaped Kamado BBQ grill off to the left. The main customer seating, meanwhile, consists of 16 comfortable chairs placed around an L-shaped, shiny black marble sushi-style countertop that wraps around this open kitchen. Off to the right there’s also a smallish lounge and well-stocked bar – exuding a slight gentleman’s club vibe – while behind a nearby door a private dining room has space for a dozen more diners. In addition, a few obviously “Korean” touches can be spotted – a wall screen here, a decorative antique cabinet there – subtly underscoring the food focus.
As for my focus, it’s brought back to the elegant place setting in front of me when I’m presented with a bowl of jook – a fairly typical Asian rice porridge dish, elevated here with minced Boston lobster and lobster bisque. This is followed by a fabulous Yukhoe Memil (the two words translating as “beef tartare” and “buckwheat”, respectively), which sees magnolia berry mixed in with the meat, and includes a topping of spring onions, egg yolk sauce, and crispy buckwheat. The chef remarks that this dish is a tad more traditional, and reveals that the beef, tonight, is indeed direct from South Korea.
A short while later a single magnificent, glazed strawberry materializes before us, filled with a gorgeous mix of fermented bean sauce and mascarpone cream, which the chef introduces as “the last of our amuse-bouches” – reminding us it isn’t dessert yet , and there’s still plenty more to eat.
Next up is Domi Hoe (domi = sea bream, hoe = raw) which includes a graceful pour of rich red sauce. “Koreans love raw fish, just as much as the Japanese, but the difference is we love it with our chojang sauce,” Henry says with a perceptible grin, listing garlic, ginger, brown sugar, apple cider, and some fine Korean chili flakes as the sauce’s ingredients. Combined with the thinly sliced, unbelievably tender fish, and slivers of compressed Korean snow pear in a pomegranate reduction, this dish turns out to be one of my favorites of the evening (the sauce is utterly addictive).
“Did you learn to make that sauce at George Brown College?” I ask, quite in jest.
“No, it’s a recipe from my mom,” Henry replies, adding that she contributes to other recipes as well. “Sometimes I have to call her and say, ‘how much salt do you put in your kimchi?’,” he laughs.
As the dishes continue to appear before us, the range and variety is quite remarkable. The bulgogi course reinterprets a Korean staple by using oyster, which is paired here with frozen burnt grapefruit before being deftly ladled into a pre-heated oyster shell – you can immediately hear the sizzle – and then finished with a dollop of perilla leaf foam. Similarly, humble bibimbap also get a gastro makeover, appearing before us transformed into a work of edible art that incorporates uni, caviar, puffed rice, kimchi, braised shiitake mushrooms, perilla leaf, and a white kimchi beurre blanc.
“The best way to enjoy it is to mix it all together, just like a regular bibimbap,” instructs the chef, although it seems a crime to ruin such an artful presentation.
We’re also treated to a course of what’s termed “temple food” – a cuisine that gained newfound popularity in 2017 when Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun, introduced it an episode of the Netflix show Chef’s Table.
“Buddhist temples are in the mountains, surrounded by pine forests, so we bring that here,” Henry explains, pointing out to us the seven types of mushrooms (grilled), bamboo shoots, burdock, juba berry oil and black raspberry gel, as well as the addition of pine nut foam on the side.
The savory courses conclude with two meaty mains, the first of which is a beef short rib, served with white kimchi and a kind of “sausage” that incorporates baby shiitake mushrooms, ground beef, ground pork, and red and yellow roasted chili peppers. And while the beef was terrific, the grill roasted sausage was so yummy I concluded it must be some long-lost comfort food that I never knew I’d been missing until now.
The second meaty main is the gorgeously decadent foie gras with chestnut banchanwhich is preceded by an explanation of the term banchan – the collective name of the dozen or so different side dishes that accompany most Korean restaurant meals – as well as the reveal that juksunchae is what you call a side dish of julienned bamboo shoots.
“Foie gras is not a traditional ingredient in Korean cuisine, but it’s gaining in popularity,” Henry mentions when the dish is finally placed before us. “Meanwhile, chestnuts signify fertility and good health in Korean culture, so the foie gras is served here with five different chestnuts banchans: Korean herb with chestnut dressing; braised chestnut in soy and whiskey with confit orange; chestnut kimchi; chestnut puree with freshly grated chestnut; and a date and chestnut gorroke.”
It’s all amazing, but the generous slab of foie gras is exceptionally superb, with a lovely caramelisation on its surfaces. “It took us a while to figure out how to grill the foie gras, because normally it would fall apart and melt,” the chef explains. “We place it on the grill and remove it several times to get it just right.”
As our eyes then fix on the gleaming red Kamado grill not too far away, Henry identifies the grillmaster. “That’s Chef Ja Myung Lee, from Busan. He’s the real Korean. I’m just the fake Canadian Korean,” he jokes, with the textbook humility of our countrymen.
Before the evening concludes we’re treated to a pair of delectable desserts, starting with a mélange of watermelon granita and omija berry syrup, flavored with makgeolli (Korean rice alcohol), and continuing with hotteok – similar to mochi, but here fried and filled with hazelnut, almond and cashew – accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream studded with sesame crackers.
Although Toronto has a sizeable Korean population – more than double that of Bangkok – I was never much of an expert as far as Korean dishes were concerned. Thankfully, my memorable evening at Juksunchae has given me a newfound appreciation for gourmet K-cuisine.
For reservations or more information, visit Juksunchae restaurant.