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Opinion

Westmont's Hanbun showcases innovative takes on Korean classics

WESTMONT – Grandmas the world over have left culinary memories in the minds of their families for hundreds of years. If you have a mindset regarding Korean food, Hanbun will both expand your horizons and delight your senses with their innovative takes on Korean classics.

Chef David Park combines his training at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY) with several stops along the culinary trail – most notable on the opening team at Grant Achatz’s Aviary – along with his Korean heritage and remembrances.

While most global cuisines continue to evolve, Hanbun takes a traditional Korean foundation and builds upon it with new ideas, culinary borrowing, fresh twists on the old as well as family traditions. Partnered with his finance Jennifer Tran, a former CIA student and a Dominican University graduate with a degree in Food Science and Nutrition, this is a formidable team and one to keep an eye on for future developments.

Set inside the International Mall on Pasquinelli Drive in Westmont, Hanbun occupies the center stage while sharing dining space with four other eateries. Feel free to mix and match, but don’t leave Hanbun out of the mix. It’s primarily a lunch-only destination serving Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner is available by advance reservation only and the wait can be several months.

The lunch menu is decidedly simple, especially when compared to the neighboring food stalls where options run into the hundreds. Three starters are all first rate. The Korean Pork Bun clearly demonstrates the levels of complexity Chef David possesses in what for most is a simple comfort food dish. Cold brew coffee combined with ssam jang (a blend of green onions, brown sugar, sesame oil, bean paste, red chile paste and several ingredients) forms an overnight marinade for pork shoulder. The meat is then slow cooked in the marinade and the reduced sauce is used as a glaze.

Served on steamed bun that is as fluffy as it is light, the pork shoulder is topped with traditional white (cabbage) kimchi and scallions. All kimchis are made in house (as are the sauces, marinades and glazes) and reflect on Chef David’s upbringing and training. Staff is more than happy to split this dish for sharing.

Toasted Rice Cake Skewers are a simple dish. Rice cakes, similar in consistency to gnocchi, arrive 6 to a skewer. Crispy outside and chewy inside, they are coated in a sweet chili glaze and dusted with puffed amaranth, similar to sesame seeds. The resultant dish provides chew, spice, crunch and creaminess all in one bite.

A medley of rotating vegetables, currently scallion, zucchini, onion and carrots, provides the flavor in Vegetable Pancakes. Arriving in wedges perfect for dipping, the exterior crunch contrasts well with the creamy interior. The dipping sauce of mirin, sesame oil, chili flakes and another 10 ingredients does not overpower the subtle blend of flavors. Look for a seasonal change to root vegetables later this fall.

Six main dishes compliment the 3 starters with Spicy Rice Cakes bridging the gap. Here, the finger like rice cakes are combined with fish cakes (small orbs with a creamy fish filling), marinated julienned carrots and served in a rich and flavorful chili sauce topped with scallions and sesame seeds.

Bibimbap is a traditional Korean “left-over” dish with peasant roots. Hanbun’s ingredients are all freshly made as barley rice is topped with tender, moist chicken, veggies and a soft-cooked egg. A mix of sesame oil and gochujang (Korean chili paste) ties the dish together with nori flakes and fine strands of chili adding to the complexity and eye appeal.

On the hearty side and Korean 101 for most beginners is Bulgogi. Eye of the chuck is hand cut into small pieces and marinated with pureed fruits such as apples and pears. The marinade tenderizes the meat and ups the flavor quotient. After a quick sauté, the tender beef is served over barley rice and topped with a crisp apple and arugula salad mix that is dressed in a soy sesame vinaigrette. Daikon radish kimchi provides another contrasting layer of crunch and heat.

Most Asian menus have a soup, pho or ramyun, and Hanbun is no exception. The Korean Ramyun utilizes a spicy chicken broth for its base adding in chicken, scallions, sesame leaf and marinated enoki which are slender white mushrooms. The flavors blend well together creating a heady aroma and are the perfect heading-into-fall dish.

My favorite lunch item at Hanbun is the Jjajjangmyum. Pronunciation issues aside, just ask for the noodle dish that combines Korean style noodles (thick spaghetti size) with a rich and flavorful black bean sauce. Marinated and slow cooked pork belly is perfectly diced and partners well with the other ingredients. Julienned cucumbers marinated in chili, garlic and fish sauce along with a fine dice of chives rounds out the dish. Mix it up, breath in the aroma and savor the taste.

The Korean Table is a chef’s selection of small plates, and not always traditional Korean. There will always be rice and stew with a pork belly kimchi stew featured on my last visit. Sides may include a prize winning dumpling or two, glazed lotus, sesame leaf kimchi, spinach in a confit of garlic and ginger, a de-hydrated squid salad with sesame, shishito peppers or bok choi kimchi. While it varies at the pleasure of the chef, it’s a great sharing dish and a chance to dig a bit deeper into Korean food.

While lunch is at Hanbun is worthy dining experience, Chef David’s talents are fully on display in his Juhnyuk, or Korean Dinner. Available to 6-9 guests and capped at 2-3 evenings per week, these 7-8 course after-hours dinners are a dining experience to treasure.

The serving area of the stall is cleared and a perfectly set table awaits your arrival. Pick your group wisely as an intimate, several course dining tour awaits.

We began with an amuse bouche or chef’s appetizer. A single chilled Plymouth (MA) Champagne Oyster arrives topped with a granita (think shaved ice) of sweet rice wine or mokgeolli, a sliver of kohlrabi kimchi and crowned with an edible flower. Beauty, precision, flavor and a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

Next up, a fried shrimp cake that combined pureed shrimp, Korean yogurt and lime zest. The cake was coated in panko bread crumbs and flash fried. Served on a bed of gochujang or Korean chili paste, the dish is crowned with a slice of daikon radish, lime zest and an edible flower. Simple, yet rewarding!

A tartar of wild sockeye salmon is vibrantly plated atop dwenjang, a traditional Korean soybean paste, and then topped with milk bread croutons, crème fraiche, nasturtium leaf and re-hydrated basil seeds. The basil seeds take on a caviar aura without the saltiness allowing the salmon to shine through. The table was silenced with this course!

Rice cakes arrive roasted in smaltz and then bathed in a broth made of blended chili sauce and charred cabbage. Mustard makes an appearance three times in this dish – pickled mustard seed, mustard frills which is the spiny leaf of baby mustard and mustard blooms as a garnish. A rough dice of seared cabbage kimchi and a soft boiled quail egg completes this intricate and satisfying dish.

It doesn’t stop as Pork Belly and Kimchi Dumplings arrive two to a serving. Set in a cucumber and butter emulsion, this dish showcases the plating efforts of Chef David. Scrolls of cucumber, Thai basil, chive blooms and tiny cubes of sweet soy gelee which gently melt as the dish is served brings the humble pot sticker or dumpling to new heights.

An Aurora Farms Beef Ribeye is fully trimmed to lean and served with lotus root is next. Bedded on a delicious lotus root puree, the medium rare slice of beef is accompanied by pickled and rolled lotus root, lotus chips, chrysanthemum leaf with chili sauce and finally, a chimichurri sauce. Each bite has endless flavor opportunities and combinations and all were successful.

Nearing the end, we were served a pre-dessert palette cleanser or Korean Perilla. A soju (Korean vodka-like rice liquor) and sesame leaf granita is zested onto a bed of Korean yogurt. The shaved ice of the granita pairs well with the creaminess of the yogurt. The dish is finished cubes of Korean honey melon, sesame leaf and perilla seeds which are similar to sesame seeds and included in the mint family.

Dessert combined soft, slices of mochi cake sided by a blend of strawberry puree and chocolate ganache. The topping begins as an omija fruit compote with added whole omija berries and strawberries. Omija is a Chinese berry said to contain five flavors – sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty. While I’m not sure I tasted all five flavors, it did mark the end of a fantastic meal!

If you are new to Korean food, start with a Korean Pork Bun and an order of Bulgogi…David and Jenn will guide you through the rest. This isn’t just Korean comfort food, this is comfort food everyone will enjoy.

While it’s a bit early to start the Best Of Lists, Hanbun is my pick for best new restaurant in the area for 2016 and the Juhnyuk Dinner, best meal of 2016! Grandma would be proud!

Hanbun

WHERE: 665 Pasquinelli Drive, Unit 108, Westmont

HOURS: Tuesday – Sunday 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.

DRESS CODE: Casual

INFO: 630-948-3383 www.hanbunrestaurant.com

RESERVATIONS: Not for lunch, Required for Dinner

PARKING: Easy

WIFI: Available

NOISE FACTOR: Subdued

PRICING: $$

For morerestaurant action, follow the @chitowndiner on Instagram.

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