I love the whole thing in Melbourne where we love to make "little" things - kind of like our revolt against the rest of Australia's obsession with big things. Three restaurants of one ethnicity or cuisine and suddenly a strip is "Little Athens" or "Little Tokyo". Following this logic, "Little Seoul" is along Victoria Street in West Melbourne, facing the Queen Vic Market and under the shadow of the tall city buildings beyond.
Wooga is all wood inside, with chunky tables with dark centres scarred from innumerable charcoal braziers being placed on top. Its specialty, you see, is Korean BBQ which is traditionally cooked semi-DIY-style at your table. Despite going on a Monday night it was packed.
We chose a banquet that come with marinated topside, beef brisket and a butterflied beef rib ($39). A great stone bowl of real charcoal is placed in the middle of the table, radiating warmth, and a removable grill placed over the top. The staff expertly place the meat atop the coals for you and any smoke is sucked up the retractable, practical yet attractive copper flue that hovers above each table.
One thing I love about Korean BBQ is the little archipelago of side dishes you can flavour-hop between while waiting for your meat to be done. Here we have sweet, tangy pickled onions that had a slightly hot and spicy onion kick in the tail; a riotously crunchy slaw with a light sesame and vinegar dressing; the most fabulous kim chi, fermented cabbage in a mild yet flavoursome chilli sauce; and a warm salad of gently wilted bean sprouts tossed with sesame. As is traditional, when finished all of the dishes will be refilled ad infinitum.
When the meat is done, you can dip it in either this Korean bean sauce (somewhat like hoi sin but with a much less cloying flavour) or sesame oil mixed with a little minced garlic and pepper. Atop a little rice, a bit of Wooga's grilled beef is a little slice of heaven. I think my favourite was the marinated topside, having the right amount of weight to undergo enough grilling to have both caramelised exterior, tender interior and plenty of real beefy flavour. The thin butterflied beef rib was very good too, and the wafer-thin brisket was tasty but needed careful attention it did not overcook.
Also included in our banquet was the "bean paste soup" - a rich, tasty, miso-esque broth with a little of that mild chilli that coated the kim chi, loaded with diced silken tofu, potato, zucchini, onion and spring onion. Miso with benefits!
What a lovely, social, interactive way to enjoy a meal. It was such a step up from Hyeung Jae. We were delighted too to get the bill and find out that it had been $39 for the entire meal rather than $39 each. Awesome value! The staff were delightful, there was cool jazz piano playing, and it was a buzz to walk out the door and see the city right there. The city skyline - that's a big thing I rate wholeheartedly.
270 Victoria Street, West Melbourne (map)
Phone: 9328 1221
Hours: Mon-Fri 5.30pm-10.30pm, Sat & Sun noon - 3pm
Door: Multiple steps to enter
Layout: Somewhat roomy; could accommodate
Bathroom: Somewhat inaccessible