Restaurant Reviews

Sáng by Mabasa, Sydney Review

Handmade and hand-crafted, Sáng by Mabasa expands the definition of Korean dining in Sydney.

By Pat Nourse
Sáng by Masaba
(From left) Co-owners Jin Sun Son, Kenny Yong Soo Son, Youmee Jeon and Seung Kee Son.

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 worth the trouble. As a rule-abiding citizen, though, I'll leave these blooms unplucked. They're good reason, if nothing else, to come back.

Not that good reasons to visit Sáng are in short supply. The sequel to Mabasa, the restaurant that was 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. It's 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.

Moon-eo sook-hwe of octopus, red radish, chilli and coriander.
Moon-eo sook-hwe of octopus, red radish, chilli and coriander.

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, refreshing), plus a portion of the red kimchi 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 accompany larger dishes at the Korean table: sprouted beans in a properly spicy jang, maybe; a salad of cucumbers and radish; some dense little nuggets of bean curd. All outstanding.

Janchi guksu - noodles, egg and vegetables (left) and baechu jeok made with Napa cabbage, (right) with seasonal sides and pickles.
Janchi guksu - noodles, egg and vegetables (left) and baechu jeok made with Napa cabbage, (right) with seasonal sides and pickles.

The value here is very appealing, not least when you take into account the little extras. And Sáng is also BYO, asking just four dollars a bottle. If you didn't come packing heat, the list crams interest onto a sheet of A4. There's easy-drinking neck-oil in the form of Kloud, a Korean lager, plus two options from Marrickville brewery Batch. The eight wines complementing the soju and cheongju selection are all Australian – riesling from the Great Southern, the fine Sassafras sparkling savagnin from Canberra – with the exception of a Mendoza malbec that should play nicely with the beefier things on the menu. almost all the wines are 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. The kitchen is open and separated from the dining area by a counter lined with jars of house-made pickles. The other half of the room is taken up by a bare few refectory-style tables. 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 of the copper light fittings, that create an atmosphere of quiet chic.

There's plenty here that you just don't see in other Korean restaurants in Sydney. For every bulgogi, bibimbap and piece of fried chicken on the menu, there's a plate of braised pig's feet, or steamed clams served with 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? Sáng serves the long, thin fish grilled with charred spring onion, rice and pickles for $15 at lunch.

Doraji tea made with bellflower roots and ginger, and poached nashi.
Doraji tea made with bellflower roots and ginger, and poached nashi.

The classic kimchi pancake is made creamy and splendid, but then so too is the lesser-seen jeok of Napa cabbage, battered on the one side and fried. I'm 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". It's a good idea to come hungry.

Sáng's poached pear dessert is a pretty, restrained little thing, the crescents of nashi studded with three pink peppercorns, the poaching liquor garnished with three pine nuts. The cakey fried honey biscuits called yakgwa seem positively giddy by contrast, set on dollops of black sesame cream.

The open kitchen.
The open kitchen.

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 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 himself, 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.

SHAREPIN
  • Author: Pat Nourse