We’re probably one of the five people in Singapore who hasn’t dove neck-deep into the Korean food craze yet. And the same goes for K-dramas (the snoozefest Winter Sonata scarred us for life) and K-pop. Don’t judge us — we’ve eaten our fair share of the cuisine but have somehow yet to fall lustily in love with it. Probably because kimchi, gochujang, ginseng and raw garlic, all anchor ingredients here, don’t make us go weak in the knees. That being said, we do enjoy good Korean barbecue, Korean fried chicken, and jap chae, two of which are available at Ho Rang I, a restaurant in Novena offering home-style Korean dishes. It was formerly known as Your Woul, but was revamped three months ago to become Ho Rang I (say “ho rung ee”; it means “tiger” in Korean) after the two sons of the lady boss took over the biz. Incidentally, the twenty-something men, Edward and Eugene Chia — their mum is Korean while dad is Singaporean — also own healthy hipster Korean rice box joint Dosirak in China Square Central.
THE LOOK: We’ve never been to Your Woul, but judging from its old photos, the décor is now a notch above its predecessor: clean and modern with a couple of traditional touches like handmade cheongsachorong paper lanterns dangling above each dark wood table. During our impromptu lunch on a Tuesday, only two other tables are occupied, the serenity of the space sullied by the piercing cackles of a group of gossipy office ladies.
THE FOOD: The cooking here is overseen by the mother and aunt of the young towkays, using recipes passed down by the boys’ grandparents. Many of the dishes from Your Woul’s repertoire remain, with the exception of a few new ones as well as an affordable set lunch and supper menu with house-made makgeolli (rice wine).
We decide to go a la carte today and zoom in on the Jap Chae ($18), a comforting dish we’ve always found hard to resist. It’s like a pimped up yet healthier version of fried tang hoon as the glass noodles are thicker, silkier and more intensely chewy — it’s made of sweet potato starch instead of mung bean. Most versions we’ve had are a bit too greasy, but the one here is not oily at all. In fact, it would’ve benefitted from an extra slick of sesame oil — but we like everything else about it. Neat strips of carrot and omelette lie attractively alongside crunchy spinach and juicy wood ear mushrooms. The springy noodles are soaked in vegetable stock overnight before being tossed with fragrant sesame oil, soy sauce and brown sugar. Rather enjoyable, so much so that we find ourselves reaching out for the last few shiny strands on the plate before our equally eager lunch partner can. Funnily, the menu claims this portion feeds two comfortably (it doesn't).
The Haemul Pajeon ($22; feeds two), seafood pancake fried with scallions, is another Korean dish we are fairly fond of. And the pizza-sized one here is quite good: soft and starchy in the middle, but nicely crisp at the edges. It’s studded with strips of tender squid but no prawn because "many customers say they’re allergic to prawns," explains the lady who serves us. Huh, okay. While the pancake is slightly undersalted, it’s all good when dipped in the accompanying vinegary chilli sauce. “Just like Korean orh luak,” opines our fellow foodie sagely.
We debate over whether to order the plain Fried Chicken (from $29 for half a bird) or the one covered in a Spicy Sauce (from $30), both new additions to the menu. Our waitress, the towkays’ Korean aunt, recommends the latter. Our makan mate convinces us to go with auntie’s choice. It looks glorious when it arrives: glistening with a glossy orange-brown sauce and speckled with sesame seeds. But we regret this decision as soon as we see our dining wingman's expression as he sinks his teeth into it. “It’s great!” he crows with faux enthusiasm in his eyes, fooling no one, not even himself. To be fair, the chook is fresh, fairly succulent and well marinated. But it’s doused in too much sauce (containing gochujang — Korean pepper paste — among other things), which unfortunately, is more sweet than spicy. The sauce also renders the batter soggy. We stare enviously at the crispy-looking plain fried chicken that a neighbouring table orders.
So we greedily call for a platter of Gal Bi Sal ($38 for 200g) as consolation. But instead of tender slices of grilled “premium US beef short ribs”, we get tough, dry slabs that even its aromatic dip of sesame oil and salt or accompanying fresh lettuce wraps cannot salvage. “It was probably grilled while still frozen,” remarks our ever-insightful companion. This time, we suspect he speaks the truth.
VERDICT: 3/5 We’ll revisit this quiet restaurant just for the simple but wonderfully-textured Jap Chae if we happen to be in the area. We may even try one of its signature stews next (while avoiding the tough grilled beef like we do sappy Korean dramas). $$-$$$
165 Thomson Rd (Goldhill Shopping Centre), S307618. Tel: 6251-0123. Open daily Sun-Thu 11.30am-2.30pm, 5.30pm-10.30pm; Fri & Sat till 2.30am. Last orders 1 hour before closing.