The Korean lady who runs House of Gimbap needs, in my opinion, to delegate a bit more. The girl at the counter is just there to take the orders; she, on the other hand, is constantly shuttling back and forth, such as when I start asking about the drinks whose names are all in Korean. (I’m not an easy customer, I fear.) Well, every new place is looking for its groove, and better to find it in the kitchen first, as they have, and figure out the service as they go.
The kitchen’s work, as the name suggests, cleaves to a tradition of rice and seaweed rolls whose origins are murky and contentious. The similarity with Japanese makizushi – though sesame oil stands in for vinegar – may suggest it was brought over during the dark decades of the Japanese occupation. Then again, it may have been brought in via more peaceful trade in older times. Yet another possibility – Korea being short of neither gim (seaweed) or bap (rice) – is that they came up with it themselves, probably in response to the same demands for something filling and portable. The paddy field has been replaced with the office block, but the need for portability persists.
This place is clearly on the takeaway oriented side of Millennia Walk, meant to attract the office lunch crowd, and the decor is accordingly simple and homey, with white dominating. In this it closely resembles another shop just two doors down – so closely, in fact, that I’ve stumbled into Tart Blanc looking for rice rolls twice. But it pays a lot more regard to customer comfort and the Korean-ness of the place; the tables aren’t creaking rows of wooden slats, for one. Food comes in bowls that are actually ceramic, or wooden platters. (Yes, I am making a comparison.)
And with all these things in place, they seem to be having a good start. On my first visit, which happens to be just a week after their opening, I am told they had sold out all of their rice rolls and only the rice bowls were available, and so I try the beef bulgogi bowl, which comes in a set with a bowl of warming doenjang soup. Earthier and more restrained than miso, the doenjang plays off its nicely whiffy garnish of raw spring onions.
As for the bulgogi, its sweetness would be repelling, but other elements actually make it intriguing – more of the light sulphur of onions, the pallor and botanicity of cabbage. The fineness of the beef means it is thoroughly soaked in the flavour of its marinade as well, with plenty to spare to moisten the rice.
On another visit, I tried their wasabi tuna gimbap, and I can confirm that the dosage of wasabi is sufficient – almost more than sufficient, really. After the nostril clearing initial rush, the scent of sesame oil in the rice is almost lost in the noise, but thankfully the flaky tuna is still present, balanced with creamy Emmental cheese. A lighter and sweet note – Korean cuisine really does like an up-front sort of sweetness – comes from the snappy pickles and goes some way to streamlining the flavour. But out of sheer force of habit I’m still missing the edge of vinegar in the rice.
An intriguing drink they serve is the omija tea, which the poor boss struggles to explain to me. ‘It has all the five flavours,’ she says. ‘It is a bit of all the tastes.’ Omija, it turns out, is the Korean transliteration of the Chinese wuweizi, also known as Schisandra, whose berries are steeped to make an attractively red tisane. As for the flavour thing, it actually does deliver – first with a woody, berry-like acidity, and then a clean sweet-salty flavour and a tongue-coating astringency. It’s weird, but in a good way. Another drink, the esel tea, is sweet without sugar, but the sweetness tails off into an awkward, rather chemical aftertaste.
The operation is as sleek as its decor suggests – you order and get a buzzer, then bring the trays back when you’re done – though, as with any new place, the staff needs a little more familiarity with the different gimbaps and teas. But if House of Gimbap looks a little plain on the front, I’m willing to accept that it’s because they’re spending plenty of time at the back. The food is measured and surprisingly subtle – yes, even that wasabi nose-scrub – and the repertoire is slowly expanding too, with plans afoot to introduce noodles and the like. And why not? House of Gimbap, if it keeps rolling out the good stuff, will be a valuable addition to the local lunch scene.
House of Gimbap
9 Raffles Boulevard
Millenia Walk, #01-103 (map)
Mon – Sat, 11am – 8pm
Closed on Sundays