In the hospitality industry Peter Jo is better known by his nom de plume, Kimchi Pete. But when asked if he eats loads of the stuff, he says, “Surprisingly, no. I don’t eat that much kimchi. There’s other elements of Korean cooking that … I want to showcase and that’s what excites me the most. I’m not trying to do cool shit with it. I’m just trying to be as Korean as possible.”

Jo started his career working front-of-house at his father’s two Korean barbeque restaurants in Sydney, Madang and Danjee. Both specialise in raw meats that guests either barbeque or boil in a pot of soup at the table. This is the Korean food Jo grew up eating and thinks of as a “commercial, approachable” take on the cuisine.

His first steps away from this were working front-of-house at Momofuku Seiobo, and as sommelier at Belles Hot Chicken, before starting a collective called Seoul of Sydney in 2011. That was the first time he’d ever worked in a kitchen.

Jo stretched further in 2016, leaving Belles to start a weekly pop-up series called #DinnerByKimchi, in which he experimented with Korean cooking techniques. “I started not really knowing what Korean food was, so I bastardised it to make it white and fine dining,” he says. “But the more I studied and researched and experimented, everything just kept drawing me back to the roots of it.”

Which brings us to Restaurant Shik, his new 65-seat, inconspicuous, dimly lit, L-shaped restaurant down cobbled Niagara Lane. The tight menu is broken down into entree, grilled, braised and banchan (sides). There’s a lot of meat on there – in fact, there are no substantial options for vegetarians – but few familiar dishes.

At the moment, for example, the seasonal kimchis are fennel and coriander, beetroot and watercress, brussels sprouts, and persimmon. And the three-strong jangajji (pickled vegetable) selection includes perilla leaf, green tomato and Korean cucumber.

“Korean food for me is all about what’s available,” Jo says. “Foraging is a huge part of Korean food, and I want to start going down that path … We’re a peasant country, so we literally ate everything, from roots to stems.” He’s already started playing with potato stems and leaves of the chilli plant.

Likewise, Jo works mainly with secondary meat cuts because he thinks primary cuts are boring. Flamed on the grill, there’s a Wagyu intercostal, a Rangers Valley beef short plate (the part of the belly right under the guts) and kimchi-marinated pork neck, each served with a banchan or two, leaves and ssamjang (a sweet and spicy paste). Emerging from the braising pots are Cloudy Bay clams with soy-bean sprouts and water parsley, pork belly, lamb ribs, and blue mackerel with chrysanthemum leaves.

Jo recommends starting with something raw, such as the traditional Korean version of beef tartare, yookhwe, with witlof and Korean pear, or pickled soy mussels with papery rice crackers, before moving onto pig-skin terrine served on sticks of garlic chives, and a plate of thin pork-and-kimchi pancake triangles.

You’ll notice that the back bar is pretty bare. Jo wants people to drink wine – natural, preferably – in order to appreciate the varying fermented flavours in what they’re eating and drinking. The 60-bottle wine list is almost entirely natural, mostly Italian and French, with several German rieslings and Australian pinots in the mix.

Shik also stocks three types of the spirit soju distilled the traditional way, using rice. That’s rare nowadays – in the 1960s a rice shortage led the Korean government to ban rice-derived soju. Although the ban was lifted in 1999, many distillers continue to make soju using potato or sweet potato, then diluting it with water and artificial sweeteners such as saccharin.

Restaurant Shik
30 Niagara Lane, Melbourne
(03) 9670 5195

Daily 5pm–11pm