On a recent Saturday a few of us came from different directions to eat in the food court of a suburban mall. Six self-professed foodies excited about a meal in a food court? Anyone else skeptical? I certainly was. I have never encountered anything worth traveling miles for in any food court. Until now. Enter Korean-inspired Hanbun lunch stall in suburban Westmont and its after hours Chef’s Tasting dinner, Juhnyuk.
When we arrive in honest to goodness, plastic furniture food court, the curtain is drawn at Hanbun, it is in fact closed for business. You see, the bread and butter (or, in this case, rice and kimchi?) of this operation is a bustling Korean street food lunch service. Which ends at 2pm. We are about 5 hours late… Now what?
Suddenly the curtain comes up to reveal a white linen dressed table for six set with stemware and crisp cloth napkins. No plastic fork in sight. The table is set right next to the hot line in the middle of the commercial kitchen. This is as “behind the scenes” as it gets, I think to myself. Two people are making haste in the kitchen: a lively young woman tending to our needs and the man behind the line, let’s call him The Wizard.
We stash our brigade of bottles (the dinner is BYOB) in the fridge next to what looks like the day’s prep, and take our seats. Having looked at Hanbun’s lunch menu, I expect traditional Korean dishes, perhaps with a twist. Boy, was I ever wrong! What follows, flawlessly executed, is one of the most exquisite dining experiences of my life. Easily top ten. In a suburban mall. In a food court. In the middle of a stainless steel commercial kitchen. I am stunned.
A single oyster with crisp kohlrabi and briney kimchi is the flavor explosion that unequivocally lets me know that something extraordinary is about to go down. I sit up and take notice. The parade of dishes that follows, seven in all, is a feast for all senses. They are beautiful. They are exciting. They are…well, truthfully neither traditional, nor street food. And yet there are elements of both in every dish, elevated by the talented Chef Dave Park. This tasting is the product of his imagination, his story to tell. As Chef Park works alone behind the line, his partner Jennifer Tran is busy resetting our silverware and filling our glasses. The conversation flows with ease. All of us, from all walks of life, feel at home in this magical place Jennifer and Dave created just for us, just for tonight.
The dishes take turns in front of me, one more beautiful than the next. Sokeye salmon tartare comes with peppery nasturtium leaves and bright yuzu creme fraiche. Humble rice cakes are elevated to the level of haute cuisine, served with mustard seeds and quail egg for a dish that is a savory sensory overload. The delicate pork and kimchi dumpling reminiscent of Italian tortellini in shape comes with paper thin cucumber ribbons and adorned in edible flowers. Each dish is a play in contrasts of textures, flavors and depths. I am speechless. Ask anyone, that never happens.
Beef tenderloin blooms alongside chrysanthemum and lotus root. It is rich and unctuous and almost too much. Almost. Chef Park knows how to leave you wanting just one more bite. The beef dish is our main course, so I expect a classic progression to palate cleanser. Something to refresh my palate, to bring it back to life, sharpen the focus. What I never expected this palate cleanser to do is blow my mind. A granita of Korean perilla, icy shards of what spring must taste like, comes with crunchy honey melon and tangy Korean yogurt drink that I will never be able to pronounce. Outstanding. No, really. The most surprising bite of the meal is a spoonful of bright green ice crystals.
Time for dessert, and ours is a chewy mochi cake with fresh strawberries and chocolate ganache. It is decadent in its simplicity. All of us are in awe of what we have just experienced. Chef Park reluctantly accepts our exuberant praise and joins us for a drink. He and Jennifer have been at it since 6am. They have another early morning wake up call. There is no time for sleep when you are running a restaurant.
We drive back to the city, and all the while I say to myself: “What just happened?..”
A true surprise is rare and magical. It comes along so infrequently that we forget that child like wonder feeling. When it comes rushing back in, it is heady and intoxicating and brought on by something truly special. Hanbun. A magical place where The Wizard hides behind a heavy curtain. In a food court. In a suburban mall. Now, go! It’s your turn to play with your food.
Hanbun is located in the food court of International Mall in Westmont, IL. Chef’s Tasting is available by reservation only for groups of 6-8 people. Contact [email protected] to set up your tasting.
Photos by Gourmet Rambler.