Restaurant Reviews

Sáng by Mabasa, Sydney review

Handmade, hand-crafted and following the principle of "taste of hand", Sáng by Mabasa has an assured touch, and expands the definition of Korean dining in Sydney.

By Pat Nourse
An assortment of dishes at Sydney's Sang by Mabasa, including bibimbap, skewers of scotch fillet and spring onion and fried chicken.
An assortment of dishes, including bibimbap, skewers of scotch fillet and spring onion and fried chicken.

I don't steal from restaurants, but if I did, there'd be a few things from Sáng on my shopping list. The heavy piece of engraved brass weighing down the bill. The beautiful shallow spoons set on the table with chopsticks made from the same wood. The fine golden coat-hooks placed high on the wall would almost certainly be a two-man job (I'll create the distraction, you pull down your coat with a very sharp tug) but would be entirely worthwhile. As a rule-abiding citizen, though, I'll leave these blooms unplucked. They're good reason, if nothing else, to come back.

A reservation sign at Sáng
A reservation sign at Sáng

Not that good reasons to visit Sáng are in short supply. The sequel to Mabasa, the restaurant run by same team in Balmain, Sáng presents Korean food on fine wares in a sleek setting. Its flavours are comforting, but the plating is precise. Aesthetics count here, but nothing is so modernised that it loses what Koreans call son mat. Son mat is usually translated as "taste of hand", but it's really about heart as much as anything else. You'll see it at Sáng in the way eggplants are cut into wedges of just the right size to fry so they cook right through but the batter stays perfectly blond and crisp, a ripe vehicle for a sticky sweet-sour spring onion and garlic sauce. It's there in the perfect layer of crunchy rice at the bottom of a stone-pot bibimbap. In the slippery give of the tofu in a kimchi jjigae. In the salty-sweet crisps of almond and seaweed gimbugak served as a snack with drinks.

Sweet and sour deep-fried eggplant
Sweet and sour deep-fried eggplant

The vibe on the floor is friendly and accommodating, too. Order a tea – one made with bellflower roots and ginger, perhaps – and it'll be served with little coins of sweet dried carrot on the side. You might mention to one of the people serving you that you're very taken with the kimchi and that you'd like more, and they'll bring more of that classic cabbage kimchi, but also a white version (crisp, fresh, refreshing), plus a portion of the red kimchi that has been chopped and stir-fried. Melting and buttery, it's a revelation.

That same hot kimchi crowns a beautifully presented bowl of janchi guksu, wheat noodles in soup with bright ribbons of omelette, shreds of carrot, zucchini and a nest of toasted kelp. On the side you'll likely be given a vegetable plate that is Sáng's take on banchan, the small plates that usually accompany larger dishes at the Korean table: sprouted beans in a properly spicy jang, maybe. A little salad of cucumbers and radish. Some dense little nuggets of bean curd. All outstanding.

Janchi guksu
Janchi guksu

The value here is very appealing, not least when you take into account the little extras. And Sáng is also BYO, with the radically fair corkage charge of four dollars a bottle. If you didn't come packing heat, the list packs interest onto a single side of A4. There's easy-drinking neck-oil in the form of Kloud, a smashable Korean lager, and if you like your beer with flavour, there are two options from Marrickville brewery Batch. The eight wines complementing the soju and cheongju selection are all Australian – riesling from the Great Southern, a Heathcote nebbiolo rosé from Victorian label Aller Trop Loin, the exceptional Sassafras sparkling savagnin from Canberra – with the exception of an Argentinian malbec that ought to play nicely with the beefier things on the menu. All of the wines, barring a Norton Summit pinot at $72, are listed at under $60 a bottle.

The room isn't large or lavishly appointed. It stands on a busy stretch of Fitzroy Street, Surry Hills, and the best thing you can say about the location is that it's handy for the Cricketers Arms. Sáng's kitchen is open, separated from the dining area with a counter that's home to a pretty row of jars full of house-made pickles and preserves. The other half of the room is taken up by a bare few refectory-style tables made of pale timber and lined with bentwood chairs. It's the little things – the more, shall we say, easily stolen touches – such as the ceramics made for the Korean booze, and the brass vases, as well as the pleasing lines and dimensions of the copper pendant light fittings, that create an atmosphere of quiet chic.

Grilled mackerel pike
Grilled mackerel pike

There's plenty here that you just don't see in other Korean restaurants in Sydney. For every bulgogi, bowl of bibimbap or piece of fried chicken on the menu, there's a plate of pig's trotters braised in soy sauce, or steamed clams served with doenjang soybean paste. Moon-eo sook-hwe translates at Sáng to a cool, invigorating salad of slices of octopus tossed with red radish, coriander and a healthy helping of hot chilli. And when was the last time you saw mackerel pike on a menu, Korean or otherwise? Sáng serves the long, thin, silver-skinned fish grilled on charred spring onion with rice and pickles for $15 at lunch.

Napa cabbage pancake
Napa cabbage pancake

The classic kimchi pancake is made creamy and splendid, but then so too is the lesser-known jeok of Napa cabbage (aka wombok, aka baechu), battered on the one side and fried. I am yet to try the potato pancake, but it's only a matter of time. See also the gu jeol pan, "a wrap platter of nine delicacies". Show up hungry. There is wisdom in bringing friends who like to eat.

They can eat dessert, too. I don't know that Sáng's poached pear is going to start any riots, but it's a pretty little thing, the crescents of nashi pear studded with just three pink peppercorns, the poaching liquor garnished with just three pine nuts. The cakey fried honey biscuits called yakgwa seem positively giddy on the plate by contrast, set on dollops of black sesame cream.

Honey cookies with black sesame cream
Honey cookies with black sesame cream

Co-owners Kenny Yong Soo Son, his partner Youmee Jeon and his parents, chefs Jin Sun Son and Seung Kee Son, say that their mission is to present a contemporary setting for authentic flavours. In Sáng they've created a place that undersells and over-delivers in all the right ways, a dream of a hole-in-the-wall eatery that repays repeat visits and expands the definition of what Korean dining in Sydney can be, even as it keeps things real as an everyday neighbourhood eatery. It turns out those highly covetable objects scattered around the restaurant were made by none other than Kenny Yong Soo Son, who designs under the Studio Kyss brand, so it might be an idea to resist any lingering urge to pocket them. Stay those light fingers, and fill your belly and your heart instead.