Gaja Korean Kitchen 8445 Kalayaan Avenue, Makati City Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
(SPOT.ph) Everything at Gaja isn’t exactly what it seems. The spacious restaurant has the lightly stained wood fixtures and airy vibe of an upscale Korean restaurant, with a few accent paintings on the walls: “Those paintings look traditional but they’re actually digitally done by our in-house art team,” shares owner Terence Lim.
It’s a precursor of what’s to come: The menu is full of traditional Korean dishes, but don’t expect meals cooked by a Korean auntie. “Definitely, it all still tastes Korean,” says Lim. “But we use different techniques, more modern techniques. Restaurants in Korea are already doing this—for example, instead of simply grilling, they double-broil or sous-vide. We thought ripe naangKorean culture in Manila, so it’s time to step it up a bit.”
There may be no ajumma in this kitchen, but Chef Marc Justin Tee is no slouch when it comes to the cuisine. The first step after all to breaking the rules is to first know them like the palm of your hand. Chef Marc spent years studying in South Korea and even placed second in a cooking competition by Korean network MBC.
But the proof is in the pudding—or in this case, in the Galbi-Jjim (P850), of which they only serve 80 plates per day. A traditional galbi-jjim is a braised beef-ribs stew with potatoes and carrots—Chef Marc takes these elements and gives them a little creative twist. The potatoes and carrots are mashed to fluffy, snow-like consistency, and the Kitayama Wagyu short ribs are cooked sous-vide for 48 hours to get them fall-off-the-bone tender, with marblings of succulence melting in your mouth. Perhaps what’s most amazing about this dish is how it retains the flavor profile of a traditional galbi-jjim, only leveled up.
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But the twists aren’t just there for the sake of novelty—they also emphasize how well Chef Marc understands the flavor profile of Korean staples. “We keep the traditional Korean roots of all our dishes. We keep their flavors, and the main ingredients are nothing fancy,” says Chef Marc. “But we just get a little creative in terms of technique.”
Take their version of bibimbap, the Ribimbap (P480), which features rib-eye beef cubes, carrots, French beans, and gochujang butter. “Traditionally, you put lots of gochujang on your bibimbap,” shares Chef Marc. “Which is really what you should do. But it tends to overpower the rest of the ingredients.” With the top-notch fixings in this bowl, you do want to get all that flavor: The gochujang butter gives this bibimbap a touch of that sour-spicy flavor, and some richness, too, while still letting the freshness of the vegetables and the savory beef shine through.
The osam-bulgogi, a stew of squid and pork belly, isn’t as widely known as other Korean dishes, but Korean food enthusiasts will have an “A-ha!” moment when they see the Osam (P450). It’s all right if you don’t get the reference at first glance, though: There’s really no way to resist a crisp-on-the-outside, juicy and butter-soft-on-the-inside pork belly paired with a tender whole squid stuffed with kimchi rice.
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The Kimbap Aburi (P360) is where Chef Marc goes a little bit crazy. He takes a beef bulgogi-stuffed kimbap and tops it with overflowing cheese-aburi sauce. The result is wonderfully rich and almost guiltily indulgent, but you won’t be able to stop popping these in your mouth.
With hefty servings, it’s easy to feel stuffed at Gaja, but don’t skip the Korean Chili Lava Cake (P280). What first appears as a decadent chocolate lava cake hits you with a subtle, snaking heat from Korean chili powder when you least expect it. It’s the perfect ending for a meal—and a restaurant—full of surprises.