In the Plateau space that formerly housed French bistro Au 917 is a new Korean restaurant called Luna. Luna’s design is classic and refined, paying respect to its namesake, the moon, by incorporating dark walls and tables with splashes of white in the tablecloths and milk-glass pendant lighting. The design is like that of a little black dress or a well-tailored suit — it doesn’t break the mold, it just simply looks good, and for a tiny 40-seat restaurant, it feels intimate. As we arrived at the restaurant on a warm Saturday evening, the room was humming with the soft chatter of conversation.
Our server points out that the prix-fixe menu is offered in two formats, for $30 or $40, the price difference determined by the number of dishes. It’s certainly a good option for diners completely unfamiliar with Korean cuisine as a tasting menu is designed to guide you through a well-considered sampling of the restaurant’s specialties, but we decided to forgo the tasting menu, opting to try the things that spoke most to us. To begin we ordered the assortment of kimchi-, pork- and beef-filled dumplings known as galbi mandoo and dakgaejang, a spicy chicken soup. For main courses, we ordered a classic dolsot bibimbap with bulgogi (beef) and jeon, a traditional Korean pancake offered with many different topping options — we chose ground pork.
Almost immediately after placing our order, our server disappeared and reappeared again brandishing a long slender board supporting five small ceramic bowls each holding a unique morsel of food. This, of course, was the banchan, which translates to side dish. These are the amuse-bouche-like small plates that arrive at the beginning of any Korean meal. At Luna, the banchan options were composed of two types of cabbage: a spicy gochujang marinated cabbage and soy-marinated version. There was also crispy fried tofu, pickled cucumber with chilli and cubes of potato cooked in a sweetened soy sauce. Each of the banchan served were delicious and also classic examples of traditional Korean cooking. The quality of the banchan at any given Korean restaurant is often the barometer by which the rest of the meal is judged, and like a handshake, it’s a telling first impression. In Luna’s case it says a lot about the overall level of cooking to be expected, which is good, because Luna’s banchan ranks among the best I have had in town.
The next dish to arrive was the kimchi served three ways: classic cabbage kimchi bundled tightly into a rose-like shape, neatly stacked batonettes of cucumber kimchi and neatly arranged cubes of daikon kimchi each representing the various incarnations of kimchi, reminding us that kimchi is a method, not a product. Each version is delicious; although my preference leans toward the cabbage, the daikon is very good. I have had it prepared before at other restaurants, but it was more subtle at Luna, lacking the pungent fermented radish aroma that can be so overpowering. The next dish, the galbi mandoo were three streamed pierogi-sized dumplings served in their bamboo steamers and accompanied by a soy and vinegar sauce. These were incredible. Stuffed with a seemingly simple combination of ground beef short ribs and pork, the depth of flavour of these dumplings was astounding: savoury with a slight bit of balancing sweetness, spice and richness from slowly rendered mushrooms, onions and garlic lightened with a subtle bit of ginger. They could serve nothing but dumplings and kimchi and it would still be an incredible restaurant. Finally, the dakgaejang, a spicy chicken soup was delightful, the bright crimson-red broth iconic of Korean cuisine was spicy, there’s no doubt, but not face-meltingly spicy. This soup is more about heat and aromatics working in harmony. In the soup were a few mushrooms, glass noodles and of course bits of braised chicken. It was homey and comforting like any good chicken soup, and certainly as the months grow colder, I will think back fondly on it.
The high level of execution was easily carried through to the main courses. The dolsot bibimbap came served in a traditional stone bowl and served so searingly hot that the rice at the bottom of the bowl fries and begins to caramelize and crisp up. Topped with vibrantly coloured piles of carrots, daikon, cucumber both raw and marinated and mushrooms all centred around beautifully browned thin ribbons of marinated beef topped with a lusciously yellow and plump egg yolk. If you have ever had good dolsot bibimbap, you know the pleasure of mixing the rice and toppings to make varied and wonderfully flavourful bites, a bit of marinated cucumber and beef in one bite and then some crispy rice and a daikon so subtly glazed with egg yolk. It’s a wonderful dish that Luna masters with elegance.
The jeon is a savoury rice pancake and classic Korean dish, perhaps one of the most versatile dishes in Korean cuisine — it may be served as a banchan, a main dish, as an appetizer or as a bar snack. Its base is relatively simple which allows it to be customized to suit a variety of tastes. Meat, kimchi and scallions are all classic variations of the dish. Ours was served with spicy ground pork and the combination of the sweet and spicy pork enveloped in a crispy fried dough reminded me very much of Indian pakoras. It’s no wonder this is a popular bar snack — I could easily imagine myself devouring a pancake while enjoying an ice cold beer or two.
Luna is a restaurant of very high quality, and like many in town you can expect good service in a comfortable and attractive space. But unlike so many restaurants in town, you can enjoy all these things for an extremely reasonable price, completely devoid of grandeur and pretension. What more is left to say? Go. ■
917 Rachel E.