IF Korean cuisine had a prodigal son, his name might be Sun Kim. A chef who left home and travelled the world, picking up different influences and cooking styles, absorbing them into his heart and memory. Hints of Japan; a walk through Australia; a nod to France.
Yet with him, such influences always seemed more borrowed than true. He had passion and talent on tap, but a purpose – or just a storyline – was strangely missing from his food.
It’s not like we’re expecting a K-drama. Just something to get our teeth into instead of just “Ok,that was a good meal, but…”. Finally, Meta has come into its own, as chef Kim looks inward into his own ethnic roots, delivering a menu that has both depth and a strong sense of place.
To be clear, Meta hasn’t turned into a “gochujang this and doenjang that” kind of restaurant.
It still has strong Western-Japanese leanings but chef Kim is embracing Korean ingredients a lot more, and by natural extension, the heritage behind them.
A tasting menu here (S$218) is like watching a Korean agriculture documentary with food samples. And a far sight better than waiting for the supermarket auntie to finish frying her king oyster mushroom samples at FairPrice.
Still, it’s not so much the ingredients but what chef Kim does with them, including those of different nationalities.
A global market basket goes into making a trio of scrumptious snacks, starting with super crisp squares of toast layered with pressed foie gras and glistening jellied peach that play textural tag in the mouth.
Argentinian prawn done two ways is next: Sweet plump chunks in a creamy dressing piled into a savoury mini kombu brioche, and the head fried tempura style, wrapped in shredded filo pastry under a tangle of perilla leaves.
Next up is some understated Korean flair as he shapes traditional marinated beef tartare – silky smooth and mild – into a gunkan sushi topped with slivers of mildly pickled daikon.
Not to be outdone, a blini-shaped pajeon or savoury pancake is both crisp and chewy in the same bite, decorated with curls of squid and a baby mussel that packs more flavour than any mollusc three times its size.
The only hot starter is also a Meta signature – chef Kim’s cabbage chawanmushi that is all silken egg custard with a mild vegetal taste that’s overtaken by an assertive kimchi glaze and a crown of rich, briny bafun uni.
It’s an extended prelude to the meal proper, but we’re not complaining since we’re introduced to raw marinated Ok-dom, the Korean equivalent of Japanese amadei. Here, the fleshy jewels of raw fish hidden under petals of pickled daikon and caviar are already an impressive combination, but the surprise egg yolk confit completes it with a rich, velvety finish.
Memories of Seoul’s seafood market Noryangjin stir at the sight of braised Jeju abalone – sans the touts and crass surroundings – bouncy nuggets of shellfish braised in light anchovy broth and served atop buttery short grain rice porridge infused with abalone liver.
Meanwhile, Canadian lobster and Korean manila clam, together with pan-fried pomfret and squid which probably first met at Jurong fish port, huddle under a sheet of smooth noodle made of scallop and egg white.
They’re waiting to be doused in an intense but light crustacean broth – a bouillabaisse with a Korean accent of gochujang.
It’s hard to imagine that there might be beef on the menu but there is, in the form of dry-aged lamb saddle with crisped up fat on one side and basted with doenjang (bean paste) instead of salt.
It’s tender, juicy and paired with a Korean cannoli of zucchini layers rolled around a ragout of potato and oyster mushrooms in gochujang sauce.
A thin layer of pork lardon removes any healthy aspirations the vegetables have.
Even if you can’t move by then, a whiff of earthy-sweet beef, maitake mushroom and burdock rice will change your mind, especially when the whole claypot is brought out for your sniffing pleasure.
Don’t kid yourself that you’ll get to bring home the leftovers as onigiri (wrong restaurant). Instead, you get to savour a small portion of it with a plump iberico pork patty stuffed with foie gras.
Locally grown salad helps to assuage the guilt. The rice is as good as it smells, chewy-tender grains cooked in mellow, mirin-enhanced broth.
Lychee granita and coconut sorbet barely cleanse your palate in preparation for a lovely sweet finish of feathery buckwheat puff pastry over ice cream, sticky caramel and whipped chocolate cream.
Part of chef Kim’s original reticence could come from a reluctance to be seen as a token Korean ambassador of agricultural products. But he needn’t worry.
(Related: Saint Pierre still on top form with new menu)
The ingredients are just supporting players of a larger plot – for him to carve his niche as a chef of the world with a unique story to tell.
We can’t wait for the next chapter.
1 Keong Saik Road
Tel: 6513 0898
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat:12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 9pm. Closed on Sun
This article was originally published in The Business Times.