Toronto, so goes the saying, is a city of neighbourhoods. Little Italy, along College Street, is maybe the most well-known among these. But a few blocks north is a neighbourhood that still feels like a hidden gem in the city: Koreatown. Between the two neighbourhoods, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to unique dining. But what’s perhaps most interesting is the way that these neighbourhoods, once rigidly defined, are beginning to mesh and blend into one another.
Which brings us to Doma, a high-end Korean restaurant (with inspirations drawn from French-style cooking) right in the heart of Little Italy. I have eaten a lot of Korean food since I moved to Toronto, and my go-to spots are small, hole-in-the-wall Korean soon tofu or bibimbap restaurants (either to sit down with or for arguably the best takeout there is). But what I’ve never tried is a fine dining experience of Korean cuisine. Which is all to say that I jumped at the chance to dine at Doma.
Doma is a small restaurant, with about a dozen or so tables. Nothing is too loud, or flashy, or fast-moving; the minimalist design, simple place setting and the quiet atmosphere lends the restaurant a meditative quality. The restaurant itself is identified only by a simple, white square logo with small lettering.
Much of the decor, and in truth the experience itself, is built on the interplay between dark and light. Each table has one black wooden chair, and one light wooden chair; the light coloured tables are set with striking, ink-black cutlery; the walls are white, yet dim lighting encloses the space in on you. All of this is to say that Doma is comfortable, understated, and warm.
The warmth, and interplay of light carries through the decor into the atmosphere, creating a dining room that is simple and meditative.The service is relaxed and inviting. This might change in a more hectic seating, but our server(s) were happy to chat about the wine, Korean food, how business has been in their first four months of operation, and so on.
The menu range is admittedly small at Doma. This needs to be qualified, though, by saying that their menu changes monthly. It’s also a sharing, tapas-style menu ("think of it like, medium to large tapas," said our server), so the experience is not one geared towards a lot of choice on your part. This is not something that you can necessarily hold against them, either, since their goal is not to feed you the expected, but rather something new and creative. With that said, the limited options display an impressive breadth, from grilled eggplant to sticky pork ribs, to grilled octopus, to duck confit dumplings. There were five menu items to choose from, and our server suggested that we go with three to four shared plates
Vegetarians should take some pause, however: there were only two vegetarian options on the menu, which significantly limited our choice. We were lucky enough to be in at a slower time, and Chef Paul TK was happy to make a custom dish to help round out our meal.
There are no appetizers offered, per se, at Doma. Instead, you get a small amuse bouche (at no cost): a small vegetable-filled hotteok with a maple butter topping. Hotteoks are common for anyone who spends time in Koreatown, but for the uninitiated, a hotteok is like a small pancake with filling inside. Having eaten plenty of these that were pre-packaged snack foods, a hotteok done professionally and fresh was a delight. The vegetable filling offered a small teaser of the flavours to come: rich, and earthy in a way, but with subtle notes of spice and sweetness.
What I find so appealing about Korean food is often the simplicity that exists in dishes that seem complicated. Our three shared plates very much embody this idea. Our first plate, a grilled eggplant topped with tomato tartare, kimchi, and a charred eggplant puree relies only on a few simple flavours—the tart sweetness of the tomatoes, the spice of the kimchi, and the richness of the charred eggplant puree—to offer up a balanced dish.
Our second shared plate was roasted cauliflower with a soy glaze and sauteed mugwort atop a bed of quinoa. Here, the French inspiration rings through in the quinoa: we asked the server what made it so flavourful, and she laughs. "Butter," she says. The dish is paired with a red pepper chutney which was full of flavour and provided a spicy tanginess that had yet to appear throughout the meal.
Our third dish—a chef’s special, for the vegetarians—was a mixture of lentils, greens, and vegetables with a creamed cauliflower sauce. As a dish, it was earthier than the rest of the meal and felt less like a Korean dish than the rest. It was good, there was no argument there, but it felt a bit out of place with the rest of the meal. With that said, it was an improvised dish on the part of Chef Paul Kim, so it shouldn't be read as much of a criticism, since the mere fact of the dish being served should be commended.
While the dishes were good, there was some homogeneity to them. When you eat one dish, in a non-sharing situation, small variation between dishes does not become notable; when you're sharing three dishes, the basic formula of cooked veggies on top of a grain or a legume, with a puree, chutney, or cream on the side becomes formulaic. This isn't bad, per se, but it could be said that (especially in terms of vegetarian cuisine), Doma could explore their range a bit more.
The dessert at Doma is where the culture shock if that’s the appropriate term, is most apparent. We ordered a rice cake rolled ice cream, which came in cake-like slices. The taste of rice becomes apparent early, and never quite gives way to much sweetness. This, I’m told, is a fairly common Korean style of ice cream, with flavours like beet, black tea, and red bean being common flavours as well.
In a sense, I’m glad I tried it,because it felt more like culinary experimentation than the rest of the meal. In another sense, it was not the best dessert I’ve ever had, either. (This has less to do with the rice taste — which once you get used to it isn’t so bad — and more to do with the homogeneity of flavours in the dish.) Still, it was a fitting dessert if only because it was unabashedly Korean, and was not attempting to conform to the Western tenets of sugar-packed desserts. It’s definitely worth a try, but my main complaint would be that you won’t get much else than that single note.
Doma features a list of house-crafted cocktails that are Korean-inspired takes on classic cocktails. Their "New Old Style," for instance, is essentially a Manhattan with mandarin orange flavours, or "A Different Name," which is essentially a martini but with soju, a popular Korean liquor. All the cocktails are in-house creations.
In addition to this, there is a small, but well-curated wine list, with about a half-dozen bottles of white and red, ranging from the affordable options (~$50) to more expensive (~$90, at the top end). In addition, there was a range of ciders available.
There’s something refreshing about service that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Our servers spoke casually, dispensed with the formal trappings of fine dining service, and took the time to chat like friends. This approach, while it won’t please everybody, has its advantages, in that it allows us to chat about the food, making it accessible and comprehensible. When dealing with a unique culinary approach — certainly French-inspired Korean food counts — this aids the experience. And surely the fact that it was a Wednesday night helped as well, as we were one of the only couples dining at the time.
Maybe the best comment I can give about the service is that it didn’t feel like service. Especially if you have worked in the food industry like I have, good service often resists opaque attempts to be good service. A server checking in every 15 minutes may be quantifiably good service, but it doesn’t feel great, per se. Rather, what makes the service at Doma good is all the things I can’t describe, simply because they feel less like service and more like dining with a friend. All the component parts were there, of course: our servers were attentive and were able to offer advice on the food, and everything was brought out well. Adequate service, though, is not good service, and the fact that our servers simply spoke to us like friends who they happened to be giving food to is a testament to the quality of service at Doma.
Korean food, it seems, is overshadowed by the ubiquitousness of Chinese food, and the millennial popularity of Japanese sushi. This, I submit, is unfortunate—because Korean food is better than both of them. It is flavourful and inventive, incorporating something that is sure to please. In Toronto, Korean restaurants are easy to find but exist primarily within a certain strata. Doma, however, is different: even surrounded by some of Toronto’s best Italian restaurants, it holds its own by showcasing the immense range of tastes that Korean food has to offer. With its French inspirations, their food achieves accessibility without the sacrifice of quality or authenticity—a testament to Chef Paul Kim’s creativity. With its intimate setting and its unique food, Doma is definitely not one to miss, and with a constantly rotating menu (new items are added monthly), it’s definitely one you’ll want to go back to.