Down a little laneway off Wesley Place, behind the Uniting Church and the revered Caretaker’s Cottage, Ondo is quietly building a dedicated congregation of its own.
“In Melbourne, when you go to a Korean restaurant, you expect fried chicken, or barbeque,” says Ondo chef and co-owner Levi Eun. “But at Ondo, we try to make food that you cannot easily find, even in Korea.”
Eun arrived in Australia from South Korea in 2015, with fine-dining experience from his home country. Despite speaking little English, he soon progressed to roles in the esteemed kitchens of Quay, Longrain and Igni. Last year, Eun struck out on his own, opening Ondo, in Armadale, with business partners Crush Yang, Ryan Kim and Andy Park. It’s a cafe that specialises in bansang, a meal format similar to the modularity of Japanese bento dining, that combines proteins such as beef, pork, chicken and seafood with a selection of banchan (small side dishes) – along with kimchi.
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Nine months after opening the Armadale cafe, Ondo in the CBD is open. It’s a small, modern space, softened by warm timber tables and bottle-green booths and stools. And while its suburban counterpart focuses on breakfast and lunch, Ondo in the city will also trade into the evenings – just as soon as it finalises its liquor licence.
“Sometimes people try our food and say, ‘Ah, this is not the Korean that I’m used to’,” says Eun. "But food is education – there has to be someone who opens the door to different parts of our cuisine.”
Highlights from the menu include yukhoe bibimbap: raw beef tartare teamed with garlic rice, cucumber and crispy seaweed; and mandu-guk – juicy prawn dumplings in a clean, deeply savoury anchovy broth. The menu runs the full gamut of flavours and textures, from fermented and fiery to crisp, cool and refreshing. Drinks specialties include herbal mugwort and black sesame lattes, and house-made punches flavoured with ginger and cinnamon. The chilled butternut sikhye – fermented malt and rice punch – is a particular standout. The drinks list will comprise local wines, Japanese sakes and Korea’s rice wines – soju and makgeolli.
Eun’s goal is for Ondo to remain approachable and affordable, so as many people as possible can get to experience the lesser-known flavours of South Korea. So far, Ondo’s been serving many people looking for a taste of home.
“Our regulars – even Koreans of the older generation – come in sometimes four days a week,” he says. “It’s great that Ondo can be a place for this community.”