For those of you who are not aware, we are in the midst of a renaissance. While Busan has seriously established itself as a ‘developed’ (perhaps even overdeveloped) city, the focus has long been on building skyward. The result: an abundance of cookie-cutter apartment blocks poking out amidst the otherwise beautiful landscape. Now that what needed to be built has been built, the city has begun to turn its attention towards aesthetics.
Fortunately, that embrace extends beyond architecture, and has yielded a brighter international food landscape. And it’s not just a new found penchant for multicultural fare…it’s an actual appreciation for the art of food. For that, we have to thank pioneers such as Ono’s proprietor, Hwang Hyun-Giu.
My first glance at Ono’s menu two and a half years ago had me repeating the mantra “Don’t get your hopes up…don’t get your hopes up…” A quarto fromaggi brick oven pizza? An honest-to-god salad with dressing that doesn’t involve kiwi and mayonnaise? A blue cheese burger? Too good to be true. But I had an inkling that something special was in store for me, if only because the classy décor and ample outdoor seating had that ‘hard to discern where you are on the planet’ kind of feel.
Upon giving the menu a more critical eye, I almost became a little concerned by the hodgepodge of ‘western food.’ A hint of Mexican, a dash of Italian, a splash of Hawa-iian, topped with a dollop of New York bistro. Could one restaurant, no less in a country that considers corn and sweet potato appropriate pizza toppings, get all of these cuisines right? Yet, I dove into my first meal at Ono with an open mind and an anticipatory belly.
During his twelve years in Hawaii, Hyun-Giu, or ‘Clay’ as he commonly introduces himself, worked part-time in restaurants and paid close attention to what his chef friends were doing. He returned to Korea with dreams of becom-ing a furniture designer, but after fulfilling his army commitment, he moved back to Seoul to manage the long-standing chain of Korean restaurants that his family owns.
Longing for the laid back lifestyle in which he spent his formative years, Clay relocated to Busan with a sense of duty to introduce his home country to the multifarious flavors that he so missed. He brought his friend, Kim Min-Chul, a chef who trained in France and traveled extensively in Italy, with him to Hawaii for a month-long tasting session. He then returned to stake his claim on Busan’s newly expanding food scene. Min-Chul has since departed to head up the kitchen at Ono’s second restaurant in Bundang, leaving Clay at the reigns in the Haeundae shop.
“Many Koreans who open western-style restaurants here adapt the flavors to suit the Korean palate, and the food loses some of its authenticity,” says Clay. “When we first opened in the fall of 2006, I told my wait staff not to worry so much if the Korean customers didn’t love it. If the foreign patrons love it, then we’ll keep it the way it is and the Koreans will come around.” And they certainly did, as they make up 90% of his clientele. As for the progress of western food here in Busan, nobody feels the rapid change as much as Clay. “Three years ago, it was difficult to get all of the ingredients and spices necessary to make it work – but it keeps getting easier.”
I have yet to taste a dish at Ono that didn’t ring true to its origin. Admittedly, I have only eaten at Ono a handful of times, as it leaves my wallet quite a bit lighter than the Gimbap Changuk. But the indulgence has never been anything less than totally worth it. Coming from a city (New York) and lifestyle (restaurant industry) where it wasn’t uncommon to drop a Benjamin on a good meal, spending 16,000 won for a proper Caesar Salad topped with a proper Caprese Salad is completely justifiable.
Located on the ground floor of Benecity in Dongbaek, Haeundae. 051-747-4388