Right about July is when I start to despair of the chilly Canberra winter. When you can see your breath in the air and the nights are dropping into the single digits with no end in sight, I lament the decision to build the nation's capital so far south and with nary an ocean in sight.
On nights like these, I like to take a leaf out of other countries' books. Countries that know a long, dark winter and have learnt how to stay warm. South Korea, for instance, where the warmth of a charcoal barbecue at your table and plenty of soju help you stay toasty.
I'm a big fan of Korean food and have been thrilled to see several new restaurants open in Canberra over the past few years. The latest, and where we're headed tonight, is The Tasty Hill in Civic. Perched up the top end of Moore St, it's a new restaurant that's barely three months old - so new that the black IKEA frames that greet us at the doorway don't have photos in them yet.
It's a modest set up - tiled grey floors, nondescript white tables and wooden chairs. Private booths are set up along the outer edge of the restaurant, each individually screened, while the middle area is set up for large tables. Every table can hold a charcoal barbecue, which is of course what we're here for on one of the coldest nights in years.
I'm a fan of mixed platters at barbecue restaurants because they usually offer a good selection of what the restaurant is known for. There are no mixed platters here though, only wagyu beef ($129), pork ($89) and vegetable ($14) - the former two being much too large for our group of four. We settle on wagyu short rib ($40) and soy-marinated wagyu rib finger ($31) or intercostals, the cuts of meat in between the rib bones. It's a fatty cut, and the waiter helpfully instructs us to cook it along the outer edge of the barbecue to allow the fat to render out.
There's not much by way of vegetables on the menu. A plate of mushrooms, pumpkin, sweet potato and onion for the barbecue, and bibimbap, are your two choices. It's possible that some other dishes can be made vegetarian on request, but if you plan on dining with vegetarians, I'd ring to check before rushing in.
Vegetables soon appear though, in the form of many sides, traditional with any Korean meal and complimentary here (you can request refills for $7). A colourful array of small nibbles - bright pink, green and yellow, piled onto a row of white ceramic spoons arrive at our table. It's filled with usual suspects - pickled radish, soy beansprouts - but also more extravagant bites like soy quail eggs and marinated salmon. Each has a little twist on traditional accompaniments, which makes them interesting, but flavour-wise the sides don't grab me.
House-made kimchi, also complimentary, is delightful. The crunchy leaves of Chinese cabbage are speckled with bright red chilli flakes. It's flavourful but not overly spicy, with the welcome funkiness of a properly fermented kimchi. There's also a refreshing simple shredded salad of cabbage, lightly dressed.
Meat seems to be what The Tasty Hill prides itself on. Wagyu beef, deep red and beautifully marbled is the only type of beef here. Even in our soybean stew ($20) the beef is wagyu grade. Prices may be slightly higher, but the quality of the meat is unrivalled. Portions are generous too. A serve of pork belly ($24) yields three generous slices, each the length of my forearm. Everyone also gets a set of individual dipping sauces - wasabi, mustard, soybean paste and flavoured salt.
The Hill's fried boneless chicken ($37) is an instant hit and a sure-fire crowd pleaser. A mound of battered chicken, each piece in its own web of crisp batter, tossed with roasted peanuts and shredded vegetables in a sweet soy sauce with a subtle kick of chilli. It's impossible to stop eating.
The soybean stew with wagyu beef ($20) is similarly excellent. Filled with generous slices of beef, shiitake mushrooms and slabs of tofu that soak up the soup. It's earthy, savoury and with an intense depth of flavour from fermented bean paste.
The kimchi waffle pancake ($16) is the only miss tonight. The kimchi pancake in waffle form is soggy rather than chewy, missing the beautifully crisp edges of a traditional Korean pancake.
Service is excellent - friendly, helpful and very pleasant. Staff offer helpful suggestions - and come to the rescue when we need help with the barbecue. As for drinks, there's no makgeolli (fermented rice wine), but there's beer, soju and a short but efficient wine list - four reds, four whites. At $9 a glass and $38 a bottle, it's very reasonable.
If meat is your favourite thing at Korean barbecue, it's hard to go past The Tasty Hill. There's lots they excel at here - top quality meats and good service for instance, but some things aren't quite as good as I've come to expect. The sides, while upscaled, lack a little in soul. I miss the sesame leaf accompaniment that's traditional to barbecue along with the more traditional dipping sauces, but despite all that, thinking about their wagyu really makes me want to return.
The Tasty Hill
Address: 16 Moore St, City
Owner: Jong Sun Kim
Chef: Jong Sun Kim
Noise: not an issue
Vegetarian: you may want to skip this one