I struggled to get a solid answer about what “maru” means in Korean.
The trick for me was finding the correct transliteration of this anglicized word so I could research it properly. In the ever expanding galaxy of partial truths that is the Internet, I came upon an explanation suggesting the word refers to the communal table around which families and friends sit in traditional Korean homes.
This sounded altogether too romantic and de rigueur to be true, so I asked one of my colleagues, with whom I banter about food regularly (most often to do with my favourite dishes from his native Korea, such as the incomparable beer snack Ojingeochae-Muchim: shredded, desiccated squid in chilli, garlic and sesame glaze) and he laughed out loud. “No way,” he said. “It just means floor. Like the floor of your house.”
According to Maru Korean Bistro’s website, the restaurant, named after our disputed term, is modelled on a baek ban jip, a “folksy dining restaurant that offers home-style and casual foods.”
Based on my recent visit to the restaurant with my son, The Boy, I concede that they have realized their concept and may even have successfully imbued the word in question with a certain charm not captured by the popular wisdom surrounding floors.
Maru occupies the former Cheers space, a sprawling banquet facility that operated for decades in that spot. Maru has transformed the location with minimalist interior design, all clean lines and open spaces. The back portion of the room is separated by decorative screens. Our server explained that they prefer to seat the front section of the restaurant (in front of the windows) first and, as traffic demands it, open the larger party seating in the back next.
Maru’s menu has a handful of popular favourites not uncommon in other Korean restaurants on the North Shore, like Bibimbap (rice bowl with seasonings and multiple toppings), Bulgogi (marinated grilled beef), and Yukgaejang (spicy beef stew), but the culinary creativity really comes to life on the fun and exciting “snacks” section of the menu. Here you’ll find items like Steak Tartare with Asian Pear and Garlic Chips, Open Faced BBQ Pork Buns with house special chilli mayo or Japchae, sweet potato noodles with shitake mushrooms and soy marinated sirloin.
The Boy and I opted for three items from the Snacks menu and two from the Ssam (lettuce wrap) menu, prompting our server to push an additional table over to us to accommodate the imminent plates and the neighbouring table to ask us if we were very, very hungry. “Yes,” I was tempted to reply snarkily, whilst pointing my chopsticks at their own meal, “Are you going to finish that?”
In any event, first up was a wonderfully flavour-packed and undeniably spicy Kimchi and Squid Pancake (the “pancake” in question is known as buchimgae, in which various savoury ingredients are bound together with a simple flour batter and then pan-fried) with onion and vinegary soy sauce.
The sizeable pancake, packed with fiery kimchi and generous morsels of baby squid, was sliced like a pizza and was an ample starter for $8.
A dish of cheekily named KFC (Korean fried chicken) arrived next, featuring finger-licking good morsels of breaded, boneless, deep-fried chicken in a spicy sauce, served with cylindrical rice cakes and creamy coleslaw. The KFC was The Boy’s favourite dish of the meal, one he happily polished off almost by himself, his eight-year-old eyes watering slightly towards the end but never once hinting at defeat in the face of the spicy challenge. I suspect this is how heartburn starts, one prideful bite at a time.
As dishes continued to appear, I had to remark on the systematic orange-ness of the food, the colour evidencing Maru’s liberal use of core ingredients kimchi and gochujang (spicy, fermented soy bean paste); ours was a boldly flavoured meal from start to finish.
Our final snack was a plate of pork and kimchi dumplings (effectively Korean pot-stickers), six round pucks of pan-fried noodle wrapped around a dense and (once again) spicy filling of meat and fermented cabbage.
Starters complete, we turned our attention to the ssam dishes (meats and condiments meant to be eaten wrapped in fresh, crispy lettuce leaves), one featuring Braised Pork Hocks, the other Grilled Pork Shoulder in soy-garlic marinade. For my tastes, the hocks were just too fatty and suffered from an overabundance of potent gochujang. The grilled shoulder, however, was outstanding, lean, tender and garlicky, and greatly enhanced by the confit garlic and ssam paste (a semi-sweet fermented bean paste with sesame, garlic, and onion).
I feel really old saying this, but I would urge Maru to reconsider the techno-trance soundtrack they had playing while we visited. With only a few tables occupied on a weeknight, the persistent, is-this-track-skipping? beats filled the open space and made me feel out of place without my glow stick.
Our meal, which also included two cans of soda, was $55 before gratuity.
Maru is located at 125 East Second Ave. in North Vancouver. marukoreanbistro.com 604-566-6292
Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. A self-described wine fanatic, he earned his sommelier diploma in 2001. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. North Shore News dining reviews are conducted anonymously and all meals are paid for by the newspaper.