Journey into Korean heart of starkness
The Korean Club Restaurant, 4/F, Fairview Mansion, 51A Paterson Street, Causeway Bay. Tel: 577-0454. Hours: 11am-11pm.
THE Korean Club Restaurant does not exist. At least not to the casual (or even the highly observant) passer-by.
Situated in Paterson Street, on the 4th floor of a residential block that quite literally splits Mario's restaurant in two, the only indication there is a restaurant here at all, is a small plaque - in Chinese - affixed to the mail box in the lobby.
Take the lift to the fourth floor. On the left there is what appears to be a seedy mah-jong joint, on the right an even seedier looking door which leads to the restaurant with no name. When some friends first brought me here five years ago I was sure they had made a mistake: pushing open the door it was as though we had walked into some Parisian bistro (or worse), with an attractive Asian girl sitting cross-legged in front of the entrance wearing a French beret, striped sailor's top, and drawing nonchalantly on a Gauloise.
Almost unbelievably, the same girl was still there, still wearing the Resistance garb.
The Korean Club Restaurant offers minimalist dining at its best: zero ambience and zero decor. Just khaki coloured dai pai dong tables and ragged, roll-down rattan mats over the windows.
Service is quick but austere, and staff demeanour would be more at home in a tai kwon do training hall.
First-timers to Korean restaurants are often taken aback at the starkness of the menu: everything is geared to the barbecue, with a few soups, basic meat and fish dishes, and noodles thrown in. The Korean Club Restaurant is no different in this respect, although I was a little wobbled by the prices.
Virtually every dish in the menu was ink-stamped at $70, except for dried seaweed which cost a paltry $40.
The Korean Club is kimchi paradise, with the hot pickled cabbage taking pride of place in many of the non-barbecue dishes. The fried pork with kimchi ($70) plus a bowl of chilli beef soup was (yes, you guessed it) $70. A thick red stew, it was full of tender pork slices and chunks of kimchi in a sweet and very hot sauce.
Korean food has never been for those of a nervous disposition or with a sensitive palate, and one dish which best exemplified this is the infamous chilli beef soup (know to devotees as CBS).
This version was big, steaming and painfully delicious - capable of delivering a firm slap to the head of the most ardent chilli fan.
Half the fun of eating Korean is the do-it-yourself aspect. When the barbecue dinner set ($180) arrived - an array of marinated beef, pork, pork chops, chicken, prawns, cuttle fish, plus the staple hors d'oeuvre and bowl of ginseng chicken soup - the waiter, not wishing to waste valuable gas time immediately began to add the meats to the barbecue himself.
A polite m'goy! put the ball - and the barbecue - back in our court.
The meats were tender and the sliced fish came in great mouthwatering wedges - no stingy wafer-thin slices here.
The ginseng chicken soup was a pleasant alternative to the wishy-washy stuff served in many Korean restaurants. Strangely, the menu says that if you want to order the soup as a dish ($70 per person), you need to order one day in advance.
Eating at the Korean Club Restaurant is not cheap. A meal for two, including beers (and boy, you need them!) will cost anywhere between $350 and $400. But it's mostly quiet during weekday evenings, which is unusual for Causeway Bay.
Not the kind of place to charm the pants off a client or for a romantic tete-a-tete, but if you're looking for some hearty, home-cooked Korean food with no fuss then it's well worth a visit. If you can find it.