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Anju Restaurant + Bar

Some friends wanted to try the new Korean fusion joint Anju Restaurant + Bar (18 Little La Trobe Street, Melbourne), so I happily joined them for an early Friday dinner. Not having eaten much Korean food previously, I'm still learning about what constitutes 'traditional' Korean fare, so I was interested to see how this place did 'fusion'.

Owner Young Choi went from a retail background to opening a completely fusion restaurant (combining Spanish, Mexican and Japanese), before adapting to patrons' requests for more the more traditional foods of his native background. The result is a schmick, modern restaurant/bar down a dodgy-looking CBD street, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Let me break it down for you...

The style

Anju has a warm industrial feel with traditional accents. Wooden floorboards, tables and decorative features (like planter boxes and wooden toy trucks hanging overhead) are interspersed with hard industrial surfaces like exposed concrete, stone bricks, metal plating, clean tiles, and dark wrought iron constructed almost like lattice.

Crockery is chunky and neutral-toned, cutlery is wooden, and menus are on textured coloured paper with a twine criss-cross overlay (again, like lattice). Everyone's current favourite, exposed-filament lightbulbs, give the venue a warm amber glow.

Old black-and-white movies are projected onto sections of wall (Casablanca was playing while we were there) and are also featured in old Korean posters covering the bathroom ceilings (the bathrooms are actually pretty cool!).

Music is upbeat and contemporary, but not distracting. The whole effect is warm and comforting - reminiscent of the past, but in a carefully thought-out, modern setting.

You can sit at low communal tables, tall bar tables, or along the counter, where you can listen to orders being shouted out and directly oversee all the action of the kitchen. Such an open design - although sometimes noisy - is actually quite clever, because it draws you in and makes you feel involved.

The service

We were mainly attended by a charming gentleman who did his best to answer our queries and patiently put up with my photo-taking (he even posed for a few pics!).

All the staff seemed to pitch in wherever they were needed - there was none of that, "I'll just get your waiter" bizzo. There were always staff at hand, often checking in and refilling our water, but not constantly bombarding us with over-service [if it's not already a word, it should be!]. All were friendly, polite, and on the ball. My handbag started the evening on the floor and by the end of the meal, had magically been hung up on a hook behind me. (I didn't even notice... hmm.)

The only downside in service, I would say, was in the explanations of the food. Not being very familiar with Korean cuisine, I did need a bit of help, and explanations weren't always clear in the menu (there were lots of words, but they didn't say much, if that makes sense). To their credit, the staff did try, but they could have been better versed in succinct explanations of the dishes and drinks. One young lady did her best to explain 'makgeolli' to me, but in the end, the only way to understand it was by trying it.

The drinks

'Anju' refers to food consumed with drinks - sort of the Korean equivalent of Spanish tapas, or the Japanese izakaya. Needless to say, the drinks list at Anju is substantial and pleasingly original. I had never tried makgeolli before, and it turned out to be a cold, fermented, rice-based, non-carbonated drink, low in alcohol (8.0%), served out of a large round pot with a wooden ladle and drunk out of small cups. I would describe it as cloudy sake meets beer, meets Yakult. It was sort of sweet, and oddly moreish. At $16.00 for 1.5 litres, it was also pretty attractively priced!

Other options (that I can remember) on the drinks menu included craft beers, soju, and exotic-sounding fruit cocktails (available by the jug).

The food

We started off with grilled eggplant, cut very chunky and a bit acidic tasting, countered by a sweet sauce and accompanied by different types of mushrooms. I liked this dish, but I didn't love it, and I wondered what was to come.

Eggplant and mushrooms

Next: three raw fish - a neatly presented flight of three separately treated, different kinds of raw fish. The first one was tuna served with an apple vinegar, then kingfish cured with lemon, and finally salmon with orange - an inspired combination! I don't know how I've never come across this before, but the sweet acidity of orange perfectly cut through the oily, fleshy salmon. Amazing.

Raw tuna with apple vinegar

Kingfish with lemon and pickled radish

Salmon and orange - divine!

Popcorn shrimp - exactly what it sounds like - was fun to eat and tasty.

Popcorn shrimp

Then, a raw beef dish, not unlike steak tartare. We carefully whisked the egg yolk in using chopsticks, and the waiter kindly pointed out that we could also mix in the julienned accompaniment, which I *think* was apple (but I can't be 100% sure!). A squeeze of lime over the top and this was a surefire winner.

Raw beef

Finally, the fried chicken. I was surprised by the generous size of both the dish and the chicken pieces. The chicken was meaty (not too much bone or sinew), coated in a sweet sauce (but not too sweet!) and sprinkled with nuts. It was moreish and nicely filling.

Fried chicken

The cost

I have read reviews that pitch Anju on the pricey side. I actually found it to be the opposite. Perhaps in comparison to other Korean restaurants, it may be more expensive (I wouldn't really know), but our total bill came to just $112.00 for three people, including drinks. I'd say under $40 per person for all that delicious food and heaps of makgeolli is pretty damned good!

Overall, I really enjoyed Anju (phew, try and say that ten times fast!). I have been looking for an excuse to go back, and think I'll have to make one up soon. Maybe Korean food is my kinda thing, after all?

Anju Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

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