‘It’s quite merciless’, says owner Bae Chan Soo (aka Chan) with a laugh of slight surprise, ‘it’s about the experience, not the taste. I suggest you don’t try it.’ I’m contemplating the Korean fad of eating live octopus as I stare at them in the tank beside me, considering the would-be sensation of suckers sticking to the insides of my throat in the creature’s final attempt at freedom as I eat it whole. Watching tentacles wriggling in the aquarium as the cephalopods await their fate, my dining partner and I decide to go with our host’s suggested mercy; stir-fried in gochujang sauce and presented whole with its outermost bits slightly crisp. Its eight glossy legs now tinted garnet red from the sweet and spicy sauce, swivelled and splayed about the scalding cast iron pan, the dish is a sight to behold, made only better upon hitting the tongue.
At Jeju Izakaya, every plate served is done so after the same level of consideration as was given to the octopus’s final moments. They’re able to achieve such practice and personal attention to each diner through having only eight seats, essentially situated right inside the same kitchen in which the four or so chefs are preparing the meal you’re about to eat. That’s the whole space, and it’s hardly short of perfect. From the outside, you’d easily mistake the little eatery for a shuttered-and-set-for-demolition stone shack, but inside, you encounter something singular. To simply call this a Japanese izakaya-style Korean fusion restaurant would be a misnomer – clichéd as it may sound, Jeju is a Korean fusion experience.
After the great octopus debate, Chan helps to curate the evening’s menu, selecting dishes that complement each other and will together make for a balanced experience for the palate. Same goes for the drinks: upon encouragement we trade sips from a range of Korean liquors poured into rustic clay mugs in order to best craft DIY highballs: one ginger and Japanese whisky, the other Korean plum wine and tonic. Out comes a rough stone pedestal, laden with kimchi looking like lava on molten rock. Atop sits a soft orb of tofu, and as the dish is placed before us, the cook pours it over with a creamy stream of soy sauce-tinted hollandaise. The unexpected fusion of flavours and textures is heavenly.
Throughout the course of this intimate meal, nearly every dish set down, though not always perfect, is, at a minimum, inspired. There’s an egg and cheese volcano generously drizzled with sriracha, and then garlicky spaghetti with uni; and salty, papery strands of dried and fried pollock. When Chan discovers a shrimp allergy in the party, he has the chef whip a bespoke version of the shrimp sliders, swapping out the seafood for pulled pork. Surprise on-the-house mini courses arrive every so often. Dinner is driven by flavour, enthusiasm and jovial, genuine service, all in equal parts and without pause.
And there’s more to Jeju than an exceptional meal. The space also serves as a place for the chefs to experiment through presenting a constant flow of new dishes to its guests, with winning creations being sent to the team’s Professor Lee and Belloco Korean fusion restaurants. It’s a winning concept that allows for a constant flux and flow of fresh menu offerings, with only the best staying long term. Thus, with every visit comes the promise of something new.
Dining at Jeju promises and delivers an unforgettable evening of unparalleled attention, sincerity, and culinary delight, and you’ll leave with a giddy high you’ll be chasing into perpetuity.
By Elysia Bagley