The BUOK Bibimbap bowl: rice, veggies, bulgogi beef, chili sauce all topped with an egg. PHOTOS BY GRAHAM HICKS/EDMONTON SUN

BUOK Fresh Korean Kitchen
10707 100 Avenue
780-244-2865
buokfresh.ca

Tues. to Fri. 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (9 p.m. Thurs. and Fri.)
Sat. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Closed Sun./Mon.

No listed delivery service

Food:  3 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 3 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns

Dinner for two excluding tip, taxes or beverages: Basic, $20; loaded $50

By GRAHAM HICKS

BUOK Fresh Korean Kitchen is disappointing, in a puzzling way.

The restaurant has worked hard at creating soul. Hands-on owner Henry Song is in the kitchen every hour BUOK is open and proudly greets his customers.

Song makes a big deal out of using his mother’s recipes, of making his sauces from scratch – especially the complex creation of BUOK’s in-house kimchi. The emphasis is on using fresh, fresh ingredients, as the name suggests.

Yes, the food is fresh – good on BUOK.

But in the sauces and mixes, within the bulgogi beef slices in the BUOK bibimbap bowl, the rolled and chopped pasta-like rice cakes in  the ddokbokki bowl, nothing in particular stood out.

BUOK’s classic DdokBokki, rolled pasta-like rice cakes in Gochujang sauce.

Thermally, the bibimbap was served on the cool side, as if pre-cooked veggies and beef had been warmed up and layered over room-temperature rice.

I didn’t pick up on any in-kitchen subtleties. I didn’t leave BUOK with the sense of enjoying the chef’s touch, a labour of love. It was more like a fresher-than-normal Asian meal on an aircraft. (On international flights, dinner is still served.)

The store-front BUOK is carefully designed, fully renovated, clean and modern.

But there’s no soul. Despite a very pleasant and attentive server, the room was relentlessly minimal and modern. It offered no invitation to sit down, to relax.

BUOK is a take-out, take-in restaurant. The idea is to order at the counter, with a $8.99 “build your own bowl” central feature (rice/noodle base, five veggie toppings, sauces, plus Korean-seasoned proteins for an extra three bucks).

If you choose to eat-in, you sit at long, skinny contemporary wooden tables and your dishes arrive within minutes. You eat quickly and leave.

Which is fine for the downtown office crowd to which BUOK markets its in-and-out inexpensive lunch bowls and Korean-themed meat-based sandwiches.  (In keeping with the trend to small plates and fusion, BUOK offers an after-4 p.m., all-day-Saturday small-plate selection with Korean-flavoured tacos and pot-stickers.)

But it’s too spartan a (contemporary) environment for friends to enjoy an hour-long dinner. Certainly it’s not designed as such.  When we visited on a Saturday at 6 p.m., only one other party of two was in the restaurant. It just doesn’t have that come-and-enjoy-yourself vibe.

Owner Henry Song is proud of his kitchen-made kimchi.

The lack of distinctive flavours was most surprising, especially given the emphasis on momma’s recipes. While reviewing Korean restaurants in the past, like Mama Lee’s Kitchen, the Tofu House and even the venerable Bul Go Gi House, I have always left with certain flavours and impressions lingering in both  mouth and mind.

Not so here.

FOOD NOTES

How exciting for chef/owner Ryan Hotchkiss to have his Bundok Restaurant (10228-104 St.) named as one of Canada’s Top 10 new restaurants in Air Canada’s EnRoute Magazine – an annual listing that is both prestigious and credible.

At the same time, Biera and the whimsical, Filipino-inspired Kanto 98 made it as Top 30 finalists in the magazine.

Past Top-10 EnRoute winners from Edmonton include Café Linnea, Clementine, RGE RD and Corso 32. (Ben Staley’s Alder Room was a 2017 winner. That restaurant has since closed, but I suspect Staley will not be long away from the city’s dining scene.)

Certainly, any of these restaurants – Bundok, Biera, Café Linnea, Clementine, RGE RD and Corso 32 – will give you a fabulous culinary evening out.  Kanto is great fun but is more on the fast-food/take-out side of the equation.

* * *

The CBC’s renowned Edmonton restaurant reviewer Twyla Campbellhas captured an important slice of the city’s food history in her posthumous biography of Gail Hall, entitled Maps, Markets and Matzo Ball Soup – The inspiring life of Chef Gail Hall. 

Through her catering firm Gourmet Goodies, her Seasoned Solutions cooking school, sharing her passion for food and her inability to say no to any worthy cause, Gail Hall  was truly inspirational, and always a force to be reckoned with on Edmonton’s food scene.

Amazingly, she kept as busy as ever in the years she struggled with breast cancer, finally succumbing to the disease in late 2016.

How fitting that Campbell – with her deep knowledge of the city’s culinary scene – stepped up to write this book.  It’s a superb tribute to Gail,  most readable, and comes with many of Hall’s favourite recipes.

Maps, Markets and Matzo Ball Soup is available at Audrey’s Books, other locations and through the website q32.ca.