Open just two months ago is Gaya Restaurant opposite Il Ciao in Applecross. The brain behind this modern Korean-Western fusion establishment is South Korean native, Leo. Since embarking on his culinary quest 13 years ago, he had always dreamed of bringing the best of South Korean flavors to table with a modern twist. Seeing his passion reminds me of several other places in town such as Midori who’s Korean chef puts a spin to your everyday Japanese fare while Mr. Muneki of Nine Fine Food, another South Korean, makes fantastic Japanese food with his sidekick chef. So what does Leo bring to the Korean food scene in Perth with his restaurant Gaya? To that, I will have to judge the food we ordered that day.
Our meal started with a complementary steamed rice wine cake with honey. Sweetish and fragrant with a mild bitterness thanks to the rice wine, it was hardly my favourite starter. In fact, one might easily mistake it for bicarbonate soda which was what my friends and I felt. Yet, this might still appeal to some. With the appetizers, we ordered favorites like Korean Fried Chicken drizzled in a tangy sauce along with some sticky yet crisp rice cakes. It was my dad’s favourite of the lot.
The next appetizer we had was the Arancini. Definitely not your typical Arborio rice stuff with smoky prosciutto. Here it was filled with a basil pesto, topped with pan-fried kimchee and dollops of berry sauce on the side. Fried to perfection, these arancinis were different from what I usually have. It was a nice take on the classic, but was it a good rendition? I liked the fragrant basil pesto and the mild acidity and heat from the kimchee but I was not too sure about it all. In the end it was OK.
A more traditional Korean dish arrived after the Arancini. Here, we had the Vegetable Jijimi or a term I am more familiar with, Vegetable Pajeon or simply just Vegetable Pancake.The reviews around the table for this was a little mixed. But that was no surprise as the cooking turned out to be very uneven for this lovely pancake. On the outside, the pancake was very thin and crispy making each bite heavenly while the middle was quite soft and most of us would have liked it to be cooked longer. On the other hand, having a side of chili mayo and balsamic soy instead of plain soy sauce showed ways that Leo tried to bring different flavors to the traditional Korean ones. That bit I must insist I liked as it comes to terms with modern day dining cultures though chili mayonnaise tend to be overused quite a fair bit!
Despite the mild flaws in the fried chicken, arancini, and pancake, they were all very good appetizers. However, it was the Japchae that pleased the crowd.Japchae is already a staple street food in Seoul. At Gaya,it is brought to a whole new level. With the noodles cooked to perfection, it is then wrapped and pan fried. For me, the Japchae itself was really nice but to wrap it and pan fry it once more was rather unusual. It became a little oilier but being Asian, my tolerance was rather high. However, to present it on a bed of wasabi mayonnaise? Hmmm! I think it did not add much flavor to it. Perhaps one little line across the plate would have suffice. Nevertheless, the crisp skin gave the Japchae a change from its usual texture which was soft and chewy. Something that was very much enjoyed across the table.
For the mains, I ordered the the braised short ribs. The ribs were simply succulent with its meat cooked just right to the point before the meat would have fallen off the bone! The sauce itself was superb with a good sweet flavor but felt overly reduced. I expected it to be a little soupy rather than a thick sauce which I got. This led to the dish being salty. But this was not the end for the dish,as all it took to bridge hell and heaven in my mouth was a bowl of rice. While most of the faults were something I could live with, one bit which I did not enjoy was the parsnip chips which were overly soft. I believe it was because the chef was waiting to serve 7 mains at one go, thus the chips were soggy when served. For $30, it was something I would definitely order again. Absolutely moreish although fishman who also ordered this main found that it felt very un-Korean as the flavors of the dates did not really shine through. Braised short ribs, parsnip and red dates.
Yv on the other hand ordered the 36 Pork. If you have not guessed it yet, this was cooked for 36 hours sous vide before being crisped on the skin. Things we loved about the dish was its presentation. It looked beautiful and the pork was really nice in a way that it was not too fatty yet extremely tender. Its skin was good but we would have loved the skin a notch crispier. Here it was crisp just nice but not really enough. Its accompaniment of apples and sweet potato puree was interesting as it evolved to the classic roast pork and apples meal. But for some odd reason, the sweet potato puree and apples did not quite live up to my expectations as it sweetness was insufficient. This made the pork feel rather 1 dimensional. Still good but definitely have space for improvement.36 hour pork. Pork belly, sweet potato puree, chive salad, glazed apple, soybean.
Bullgolgi Ginseng Bibimbap was what my sister and XL ordered. Again, this was another dish that emphasizes on Leo’s impeccable attention to detail while bringing quality Korean flavors to the dining table. Despite being an eye candy, was it a mouth pleaser too? I have not tasted a phenomenal bibimbap before and there was little differences that separated this and the ones I had in Seoul. Essentially, it was a beautified Korean classic. Lovely textures, flavors and colors. But one thing which did not stand out was the ginseng. I was hoping for a taste of Korea’s highly regarded ginseng but the flavors were absent. Which made me wondered, where did it go? Hmmmm… Bibimbap, assorted vegetables, ginseng chili paste sauce.
As my parents were not a fan of beef, they ordered a seafood stew and a spicy chicken. I have to say, while the dishes my friends and I ordered were a mix of above averages and good, the same cannot be said for the seafood stew and spicy chicken. The chicken for starters felt like a soupy version of Jeayuk Bokkum which is a spicy pork bulgolgi, this time with the addition of glass noodles and instead of pork, chicken was used. Its taste was OK, but I definitely found that the quality of this dish felt underwhelming, it needed a lot more to impress. With the seafood stew, it looked OK, but my parents were not sold by its taste. It left them wanting for something more than what was served.
Then comes the sweet ending. If you have read my post on South Korea’s street food in Winter, one of my raves was the Hott-teok. A divine disc shapped Roti/Prata filled with a delicious sugary cinnamon syrup. Only available in winter, it is simply a must have when one goes to Seoul. At Gaya, Leo makes it every day. AND IT IS ONLY 8 BUCKS. Are we Perth-ians spoilt or what? But how did it fare compared to my Korean experience?Presentation, once again received full marks without questions. Now comes to most important bit, the taste. Its pastry? Flawless. For us, it was fluffy and the consistency of the pastry when bitten into was spot on. Also the flavors of cinnamon was apparent. However, I questioned the amount of syrup that dripped when I bit into the Hott-teok. I can immediately tell that this was a trade-off between presentation and taste. But as I am a die hard believer in “taste before looks”, I would rather have an ugly piece of pastry filled with a large amount of syrup rather than these petite ones. Nonetheless, I really loved this dessert. I could have more for sure. Perhaps a little change to the slightly charred caramel shards.
Despite the Hott-teok setting high standards, Gaya produced another stellar dessert that night; the Red-misu. Another sensational $8 dollar dessert presented as if I was eating in a fine dining establishment.Just look at it. Little chocolates resembling stones in a garden with a baby basil stalk as its plant. On its surface was a chocolate sand that complimented the mild sponge fingers layered carefully with the mascarpone. And why was it called Red-misu? It is because there were bits of red beans in this which in many ways resembles little seed/stone found in soil. Simply perfect. It is not the most generous in mascarpone like other places and neither is it strong in alcohol but this was, in my terms, a delicious tiramisu. One which shouts childishness instead of the deep liquor laced ones. It was safe to say that at $8 bucks each, the desserts at Gaya Restaurant were a steal.
How does Gaya Restaurant fare as a whole? Speaking to Leo earlier on, his motivation was clear; good Korean flavors with a modern twist. Commenting on foods having a modern twist probably requires one to discern between gimmicks and techniques. With the many different cuisines around, it was hardly a modern twist. However, it was definitely enough to differentiate itself from ALL the other Korean places in town. Then comes the harder bit which is widely contested around town; good Korean flavors. I felt that it was. My housemates reckon Leo felt more like a man doing what he does best. He cooks and he puts love into what he does. The food here is different and in some ways did many things which were beyond the Korean food I have tasted in Perth. The pork, and the short ribs were clear examples. They were modern and significantly different. Maybe contemporary? I do not know. Essentially I liked it. Then comes the bad bits like the spicy chicken, and seafood stew. If I had one word, it was underwhelming. But fortunately, regardless of what came out for the mains, the appetizers and desserts were lovely. Additionally, I felt that the interior could do with a makeover to reflect the cuisine which was more contemporary than usual. Lastly, the price is always a deciding factor when it comes to eating out. For just over $50 dollars, it was a complete 3-course meal in the expensive suburb of Applecross. For me, this was a place worthy of calling good. Returning for seconds? Definitely!