9 Margaret St, Lower Hutt.
Ph: 566 8383
Fully licensed and BYO
Open Tues-Sat 12pm-2pm, Tues-Sun 5pm-late, closed Mon.
Price range of mains: $11-$25
Ambience: 2 1/2
Drinks list: 3/5
Cost: $86 for two (excluding drinks)
Over morning coffee in the staffroom at Le Cordon Bleu the other day, my colleague May Tien was wondering where she might find a good Korean restaurant in Wellington.
Since settling in Kelburn in February last year, she has tried all five around Te Aro Flat and found them wanting.
But then, May's standards are exacting, having been set by years of dining out in her hometown, San Francisco, where a large Korean population supports more than 60 Korean restaurants.
Just the person, then, to help me pass judgment on Han River, the Hutt Valley's one and only Korean eatery.
I really ought to know better than to dine out in Lower Hutt mid-week, since I'm beginning to wonder if I'm the only person who does.
At Stang House a year ago, my daughter and I sat all alone all evening, and at Han River the other night it was much the same: the only other party left soon after we arrived.
I'd already done a restaurant cruise around Queens Drive, High St and Daly St, noting the dotted customers in two and threes.
Spotting the bold, twinkly street frontage of a newcomer, I couldn't help but guffaw at the name - Wishful Asian - which inadvertently summed things up.
Sadly, it came as no surprise to find that Cafe Munich right next door to Han River is no more. Donner und blitzen! Where can I go now for my Hofbrau and haunch of roast schwein?
Like its neighbour (now a Malaysian), Han River is a humble shop front, a shoebox made all the drearier by a muddy yellow paint scheme and a well-scuffed polyester carpet coloured the same purply-grey as the veins on the underside of one's wrists.
Around the walls, however, is an interesting art collection: a traditional Korean watercolour, a charming painting of a tree and prints of abstract and semi-abstract paintings by leading Korean artists. The trouble is, they are hung too high: simply bringing these artworks down to just above the diner's head level would work wonders for Han River, I feel sure.
Manager Sungjae Lee is himself a chef, and clearly takes pride in explaining Korean food to the mainstream Kiwi customers.
He soon realised this was not necessary in the case of my guest.
"You know everything!" he concluded at the end of the evening, when May called for jujube tea.
We began with a pancake, Haemul Pa Jun, which you can have with seafood, or more adventurously, as we did, with kimchi.
I thought it really delivered on flavour, to which May agreed.
"But here," she said, "have another bit, this time from the edge, where the surface is crisp. That's really how it ought to be the whole way through."
Next up, the sauteed beef strips known as bulgogi, speaking of long marination in soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. This, we both agreed, was fab, as was the meat on the other side of this mixed grill: galbi (beef short ribs) also marinated in soy, sesame, garlic and sugar, and cooked with pear and apple puree. Some perilla leaves or lettuce for wrapping might have been nice, however.
Chigae - a spicy stew with mixed seafood (squid, shrimps and mussels) - amounts to comfort food for Koreans, particularly as it takes on a custardy texture when egg and soft tofu are stirred in. While it seemed lovely to me, May reckoned we ought to have been given a whole raw egg to stir in ourselves.
Asked for her overall impression, May said she hadn't been blown away - for example, there had been four banchan (tiny side dishes) whereas in San Francisco there would typically be 16.
Yet, of all Wellington's Korean restaurants, she rated the cuisine here the best yet.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Naeng Myun - cold noodle soup
In lieu of dessert, try this delicious cold noodle soup, which traditionally is served at the end of the meal. Beautifully garnished with shaved daikon and a slice of beef, it comes with a pair of scissors with which to cut the buckwheat noodles, along with optional flavourings - a bottle of vinegar and a tube of Korean yellow mustard, tasting a little like wasabi.
- The Dominion Post