Coriander can be controversial in Korea. Peter Jo mentions this while delivering a platter of glistening wagyu intercostals. The meat, marinated with soy, garlic, ginger and an intense dried-fish and mushroom stock, is buttery and assertive. It's served with soy-pickled onions, perilla leaf, ssämjang, cos leaves for wrapping, and the coriander, shiny with a soy-vinegar dressing shot through with sesame oil, gochugaru and salted krill.
Many Koreans reject coriander as a non-traditional ingredient, says Jo, but he's done his research and found historical precedents, so it gets the nod at his restaurant, Shik. And because its sharp, red-flecked dressing works seamlessly with the rich, fatty beef, it's a decision we can all be happy about.
This is the way Jo gets the job done. There's a kind of freeform observation of tradition at his first permanent solo venture. It reflects a career that includes working in his family's restaurants, a series of pop-ups under the alias Kimchi Pete, and stints at high-calibre Sydney eateries such as Momofuku Seiobo and Berta. Jo is enthusiastic about traditional Korean technique, but he's also a true believer in the cuisine's ethos of focusing on what's available locally.
His version of the Korean tartare yukhoe, for example, mixes roughly chopped Rangers Valley tri-tip with cubes of Korean pear and cucumber, sweet mayo and a scattering of crisp fried saltbush.
The banchan section of the menu includes familiar kimchi made from cabbage (though with a noticeable emphasis on ginger), as well as a three-part seasonal kimchi plate. Korean pickling techniques are applied to vegetables such as beetroot, pumpkin, fennel and Brussels sprouts, often to toe-curlingly good effect. The green-tomato jangajji has a soft acidic flavour and a firm, attractively chewy texture that will make it a favourite with pickle fans. Same goes for the perilla leaves cured in salt and doenjang, delicately floral and ideal for rolling around rice.
Firm-fleshed bonito replaces the more traditional blue mackerel in a spicy stew. The broth also contains hefty slices of braised radish and halved onions, while a flurry of chrysanthemum leaves adds a pleasant herbaceous note as they collapse into the broth.
Shik's two rooms match the food's classic-modern moves. Designed by Jo's partner, architect Yina Yun, the dining space takes familiar Melbourne design features – timber floors, Edison globes, exposed brick and utilities – and mixes them with two-toned timber chairs upholstered in leather, and grey-veined white marble tabletops imported from Korea. Shelves are filled with large jars of pickling vegetables, and a stone bar fronts the partially open kitchen. It's a sparsely elegant space with a constant hip-hop soundtrack. The sound system was clearly installed by somebody who knows what's what – you can speak and be heard.
There's expert input on Restaurant Shik's mostly minimal-intervention wine list, too. Jo has worked as the wine guy in places such as Belles Hot Chicken, and he has Josh Begbie (late of Embla) on board to help corral labels here.
It's a nimble list, with plenty happening over two pages each of red and white, and a page each of sparkling and rosé. Old and new worlds both get a guernsey, with nero d'Avola rosé from Sicily and Müller-Thurgau from Pfalz sitting alongside natural Aussie favourites such as Tommy Ruff shiraz and Momento Mori's Staring at the Sun vermentino-based white blend.
There's a small selection of soju and two Korean beers, plus the milky, lightly sparkling fermented-rice drink makgeolli. Known as a "farmers' beer" in Korea, makgeolli has a slightly sour tang that matches especially well with Shik's fiery, pickled and salty banchan.
It also sits well with the pigskin terrine – an essential order that's subtly flavoured, thinly sliced and teamed with garlic chives tossed in that same soy and salted-krill dressing – as well as the raw snapper, bright with gochujang and chrysanthemum and perilla leaves.
Those looking for dessert will need to move on, because there's nothing to see here. But after the generosity of dishes such as the pork belly bo ssäm, which consists of piles of sliced, simmered pork with Korean pear kimchi, soy-pickled mushrooms, lettuce leaves and ssämjang, sweets could be considered overkill.
Restaurant Shik delivers smart modern Korean food that balances authenticity with a keen sense of Melbourne here and now. It feels as though a gap has been filled.