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Updated Monday, November 12, 2012 at 03:27 PM

Tradition fires the 'modern Korean fusion' menu at Chan

By Providence Cicero
Special to The Seattle Times

It's considered a good sign when an ethnic restaurant's customers match the food's cultural origins: a German restaurant filled with Germans, for example, bodes well for the schnitzel.

Chan calls its cuisine "modern Korean fusion," so it seemed a good omen that the Saturday-night crowd at this pretty little restaurant off the courtyard of the Inn at the Market included a party of teens all dolled up for their high-school homecoming dance. They were a group so forthrightly metro-ethnic that "modern Korean fusion" could have described them too.

Don't come to Chan looking for the garlicky, pepper-pummeled stews and barbecues of traditional Korean restaurants, or for the complimentary banchan that typically accompany them. Rather, chef/owner Heong soon Park uses the cuisine of his homeland to inspire — and cooking skills sharpened at The Art Institute of Seattle to refine — a collection of small plates that I found uniformly well-executed and delicious.

Prices on the dinner menu are moderate, but for a really cheap date, early birds can snack their way through the happy-hour menu (available 5-7 p.m.), eating the equivalent of dinner at half the cost.

Those bites include sliders stuffed with tender rib-eye beef bulgogi or strands of pepper-sauced pork. Mayo cushions the soft brioche buns, and each is finished with a tart snap: cucumber kimchi on the beef; pickled daikon on the pork.

Kimchi laces the tartar sauce escorting sweet, deftly deep-fried oysters. Chili and soju (a spirit distilled from rice) give the broth beneath steamed Mediterranean mussels a pleasing jolt. If it's real fire you're after, the fried chicken wings deliver; their lip-numbing chili glaze doesn't wilt the crispy skin underneath.

Larger versions of these plates are available à la carte on the dinner menu, which also features eight-course tasting menu options ($30-$35 per person for two or more).

You'll want a kimchi sampler, an exhilarating trio of cabbage, cucumber and daikon with about half the chili heat you'd get at most Korean restaurants. That was fine with me; so was paying $3 for it, a departure from the gratis array of banchan Korean diners expect. Park resists giving food away because, he says, he's seen too much free food wasted. Instead he donates the money from those and other side dishes to Korean Foster Care.

There are many other must-haves on the menu. Pine nuts, Asian pear and a quail egg punctuate steak tartare made with finely diced Painted Hills' tenderloin mixed with sesame oil, a little soy sauce, a touch of garlic and jalapeño, plus a trace of honey.

Soy-braised short rib becomes a sophisticated, multitextured stew bolstered with pearl onions, fingerling potatoes and puffs of deep-fried rice cake. Poached tofu is a suitably low-key partner for fiery kimchi pork belly, incredibly supple meat and crisp cabbage smothered in a red chili sauce.

Spanish chorizo permeates "kimchi paella," a rousing rice dish served in a cast-iron skillet topped with a fried egg. A seafood pancake is presented in a skillet too, beautifully caramelized, with just enough batter to bind the tiny shrimp, tender calamari and scallion.

Park and his wife, who were high-school sweethearts in South Korea, bought the Italian café, Bacco, at First and Stewart, as a business investment when they moved to Seattle as newlyweds. As a restaurateur, Park quickly realized that "controlling the kitchen is key." As a cook he discovered that understanding the culture of food is important.

The couple carved Chan out of the back end of Bacco. It seats 38, with 10 at the counter facing the narrow, glass-tiled kitchen where Park and his sous chef swivel between stove and butcher-block staging area with impressive synchronicity. (The servers' choreography is less smooth, but efficient.)

In a phone interview, the 30-year-old chef told me he didn't open Chan to make money. He considers it "tuition he is paying to learn." He aims to open two more restaurants before he is 40. "I don't think I can match Tom Douglas," he says. "But maybe I could be the Korean Ethan Stowell."

Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts "Let's Eat" with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows atwww.KIRORadio.com/letseat.

Reach Cicero at providencecicero@aol.com.

Sample menu

Fried chicken wings $9
Seafood pancake $10
Steak tartare $12
Kimchi paella $12
Braised short rib $15

Chan3 stars

Contemporary Korean

86 Pine St., Seattle

(entrance off Stewart in courtyard of Inn at the Market)

206-443-5443

www.chanseattle.com

Reservations: accepted

Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m.; happy hour 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays

Prices: $$ ($7-$14)

Drinks: Signature cocktails, wine, beer, soju and makgeolli

Parking: On street or nearby lots

Sound: Moderate

Who should go: Gaze into your significant other's eyes at a table for two, or enjoy the show in the kitchen from a counter seat; either way happy hour is a great deal.

Credit cards: All major

Access: No obstacles


MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Heong Soon Park, the chef and owner of Chan, puts his own spin on modern Korean food.




MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Kimchi pork belly with poached tofu at Chan on Pine Street in Seattle.








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