When Illa Kim and Daero Lee ran their first service at Soul Dining for family and friends, they asked the diners: “How would you describe this food?” Kim and Lee didn’t know how to answer their own question.
“We couldn’t explain what we wanted to do, we just wanted to do something close to our heart; food from our memories,” says Kim.
Like many first-time restaurateurs (Lee was previously head chef at Criniti's) they want Soul Dining’s menu to represent them. The couple are both of Korean descent – Kim grew up in Germany and Lee in Korea – and their school lunch boxes were full of Korean-style food. In their teens and twenties their diets shifted and began to incorporate German roasts, pizza, pasta and Australian cafe cuisine.
That’s how they’ve ended up serving a soybean powder-dusted pork jowl with German-style red cabbage for dinner, and breakfast cereal milk-flavoured panna cotta (the sweetened milk that’s left over once you’ve eaten all your cereal) for dessert. There’s also grilled Korean eggplant adorned with tomato jam, parmesan and anchovy paste. “The pork jowl dish is me,” says Kim, who has memories of red cabbage and Korean-style barbecued pork jowl served at Christmas. (For lunch there’s a set $25 mini-banquet where diners can pick two mains and three sides.)
There are a lot of ideas here, and although the dishes sound elaborate and veer towards fine-dining, the overall vibe is more casual. Deep-fried prawn heads served with the prawn sofrito (a basic tomato sauce used in Spain as a base for dishes) are best eaten with your hands. The stuffed chillies can be broken, dipped and munched on without any cutlery too.
The design is bold. Plush blue velvet seating lines one side of the long dining room; the walls are charcoal-coloured concrete with spots of exposed brick. There are metal accents. A hefty back bar sends out Australian wines, cans of Korean lager, classic cocktails and kimchi-brine Bloody Marys. “We want this to be a fun place. It should be cosy, somewhere for late-night dinner and drinks,” says Kim.
The whole experience – the dishes, the eclectic fit-out, the big ideas – is eloquently explained by Hyunchul Kim, Soul Dining’s charming and knowledgeable manager.
When we ask him to describe the cuisine he says it’s contemporary Korean food – too Korean to be called modern Australian, but not traditional enough to be called classic Korean.
Contemporary Korean it is then.
204 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills
0430 961 007
Tue to Wed 5pm–11pm
Thu to Sat 12pm–3pm, 5pm–11pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on February 7, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.