Koreans have a word for food that’s consumed with alcohol – anju – and while a lot of the anju we see here in Melbourne are things like sticky soy garlic-glazed fried chicken wings or thin strips of beef sizzling away on a Korean barbecue, tiny Brunswick eatery Chae is here to highlight a different side to Korean cuisine.
Owner and chef Jung Chae allows bookings of up to six people into her small apartment, where she dishes up five courses of homestyle Korean food on a seasonal menu. Her balcony houses slabs of soybean and hanging cobs of corn, while her kitchen and petite dining room space host her guests – alongside rows and rows of housemade ferments.
Ever since word got out about her intimate restaurant, Chae has faced so much demand that she’s had to set up waitlists, with the next one reopening in June. So what’s the hype all about? Well, the food, of course.
Here, bugak, or deep-fried vegetables come wafer thin in the form of potato, lotus, carrot and beetroot crisps and are topped by a cloud of deep-fried seaweed paper that owes its appearance to the reaction of hot oil coming into contact with its coating of glutinous rice paste. It’s crisp and served with owner and chef Jung Chae’s very own fermented watermelon makgeolli, or rice wine, which is slightly pungent, sweet and milky – the ideal light accompaniment to a deep-fried snack.
Jung Chae is a one-woman show of very few words, and she moves around her little kitchen quietly and with ease. Turn your head and realise she’s replenished your cup of hot tea, or look up from your plate to find she’s meticulously stacked the dishwasher with used plates.
Like the beautifully stacked shelves of her housemade ferments (kombucha, kimchi, chilli sauce and vinegar, to name a few), her dishes are neatly presented, and her fine dining experience at venues like Cutler and Co and Lûmé shines through from everything like her “work” uniform and unembellished apron, to the efficient manner in which she plates up.
Sesame oil sourced from Chae’s mother’s farm in Korea perfumes the busut (mushroom) japchae. Glass noodles are interwoven with enoki, shimeji, king oyster and wood ear mushrooms and little strips of lightly charred wagyu beef, still rare and blushing, the smoky flavours balancing perfectly with the nutty sesame oil and Chae’s savoury housemade soy sauce.
Yeongeun bap (lotus root rice) comes loaded with three different grains of red rice and is accompanied by a cloudy galbitang (beef rib broth), served hot with islands of spring onion and a side of salt for you to amp up the seasoning, and banchan of housemade kimchi, pickled cucumbers, perilla leaves and kelp. The crunch and acidity of the pickles working in harmony with each bite of tender beef rib and rice.
To finish, Chae serves baesook jjim, a hot, hollowed-out steamed pear, stuffed with jujube, julienned ginger and walnut jochung (fermented rice syrup). The pear’s flesh is deceivingly hot, so be patient and enjoy its spiced, herbal syrup once it’s cooled down.
Chae is hoping her partner, who helps her with her admin, can one day quit his job to work full-time at the restaurant. Until then, be patient and keep a sharp eye on that waitlist.