Short Take: Coming from a non-expert, this place seems like the real deal for Korean food and liquor – if you want to try more than just BBQ (though they have that too), check this place out!
I’ve spent a fair amount of time on 11th Ave in the past, and often wondered what lay behind the wall of green bottles in the little place kitty-corner to the Keg and District (which you probably all already know is amazing). Turns out it is Maru, a Korean restaurant/soju watering hole. I haven’t had a lot of Korean food in the past (mostly the stereotypical Korean BBQ and kimchi), so I was interested in trying something different.
Stepping into the joint, I was impressed by the clean style and earthy features – trendy, but humble (how Asian!). I also noticed that the TV was showing Korean music videos, the speakers were playing K-pop and the place was pretty much filled with Koreans (or paraphrasing Kiran, "Koreanese people"). Now if only they would broadcast games of Starcraft on the TV…
We were seated by a server who didn’t seem to speak too much English and were immediately served cold green tea to start. Kiran marvelled at the metal chopsticks, which I thought were a nice touch even though there didn’t seem to be BBQ grills directly at the table. A cursory glance through the menu revealed a host of foods that I had never seen before (pork spine? wtf). Most of them seemed none too cheap – until the server informed us that several of the items were meant to be split between two people. Turned out that it was even happy-hour, and that large hot-pots could be had for $20 per person! As the big dishes all had meat and Kiran is a vegetarian for no good reason other than habit (bitch, I got principles –Kiran), we ended up getting separate meals and did not take advantage of the happy-hour for our food. We did, however, take advantage of their happy-hour soju pricing (I think it was $10-12 for a bottle, vs $17 normally).
When the soju first came out, we were rather unimpressed by its size ($17 for just a beer bottle?) – that is, until we noticed that it was 20% alcohol. It tasted like a grassy, watered-down vodka – inconspicuous enough that you could probably easily get f*cked up drinking it without even realizing it. Good stuff!
Our server brought out several complimentary appetizers to start – all of them were fresh and delicious, and just enough to get the tastebuds going. As we nibbled on the tasters, I watched several fantastic-looking dishes pass by on their way to other customers – amongst them sizzling hot plates and steaming hot-pots piled with mountains of meat and vegetables. I could barely wait until our main dishes came out!
I had ordered sundae to start (a sausage, not an ice cream dish, sadly), as the menu had described it as a "traditional Korean sausage." Little did I know it was actually a blood sausage! It was quite an interesting dish – the sausage being filled with cellophane noodles in addition to blood and with pink seasoning salt on the side – but since I’m not a huge fan of blood sausage, I could only finish half of it.
My main course was the beef-and-mushroom "rock bowl" hot pot, served with white rice. The beef was pull-apart tender, though there was still a fair amount of gristle (typical for the type of beef they use I think), while the broth was very tasty.
Kiran had ordered spicy noodles – "Not white-person spicy – brown-person spicy" – which he confirmed at the time of ordering to be vegetarian. However, it was apparent that there was something lost in translation when the server brought out his meal and asked "do you eat fish?" Turns out the dish was loaded with fish patties and dumplings. Luckily, they were able to quickly whip up a new batch of noodles with only vegetables and rice cakes.
I generally enjoyed our outing at Maru. I was pretty impressed by the decor inside the restaurant, especially as it s a pretty plain-looking establishment from the outside. I remember feeling soothed once I was inside. The floor-to-ceiling windows also let plenty of natural light in. Whoever planned in the interior did a pretty good job.
Surprisingly enough, there was a pretty decent variety of vegetarian options – so many, in fact, that I had a hard time choosing. I was flip-flopping between a couple, but finally settled on the spicy noodles. As Richard alluded to earlier, even though I had mentioned that I was a vegetarian, my dish came out with a whole bunch of sea food in it. In retrospect, I should have remembered that in Southeast and Eastern Asian cuisines, the concept of “vegetarianism” doesn’t really exist like the way Indian/Western cultures understand it. I have been burned on several occasions before in a similar fashion during my days in Brunei and Singapore.
The dish was certainly worth the wait, however. It was spicy as fuck! The only way I could finish this dish was downing every bite with water – I think I went through a couple of litres! Being the cocky muthafuckah I am when it comes to spicy food, I boldly proclaimed to the server to ramp up the spice factor on this dish. The kitchen did not disappoint. And as my ego was on the line, it wasn’t like I could leave the dish unfinished, especially after I had specifically asked for it to be as spicy as possible!
The very surprising thing about the noodles was that there was despite the overwhelming spiciness, there was a great flavour to the whole dish. I personally thought it was an amazing achievement to bring that level of flavour to the dish despite the overwhelming spiciness. The rice cakes were my favourite part as each bite was chewy and full of kick-ass flavour. Definitely something that I would order again, but probably scaled back on the spiciness.
Despite the confusion, I thought the service was pretty good. A quick scan through Urbanspoon yielded the usual reviews complaining about the service level. I take these with a grain of salt as typically the reviewers over-inflate their bad experience and don’t take into account the language and cultural barriers that lead to the confusion.
I would definitely recommend this place to someone looking for some authentic Korean food.
Overall, I’m not sure if Maru has much broad appeal (other reviews on Urbanspoon suggest that it doesn’t), but its vast unexplored menu and wall of soju has me itching to go back again.
||28/36 = 78%
||27/36 = 77%