Pack your bags, foodies. We’re going to Korea.
Pack lightly, though. It’s just around the corner.
In Orillia, you can find places that serve similar items but in their own unique ways. There’s the North American-style, pile-on-as-many-toppings-as-possible pizza and there’s also a Neapolitan-inspired, wood-fired pie. There are burgers and fried chicken and sandwiches to cater to any taste.
But there’s nothing — seriously, nothing — like Café Seoulista.
That wasn’t lost on Scarlett Lee when she and husband Jason, both originally from Seoul, South Korea, set up shop in the plaza at 575 West St. S. in 2018.
After living in Toronto, where they worked in different industries, the two turned their eyes north when Lee decided to pursue her true passion.
“I’ve always dreamt of having my own café filled with things that I like,” she said.
Those things include the tastes and culture of Korea, both of which are rich and fascinating.
When the café opened, Lee was fielding questions from curious customers, including this columnist.
“What is bingsu?” I asked.
I wasn’t expecting a history lesson, but that’s what I got, and I’m glad I did. It made me appreciate this centuries-old sweet treat.
Bingsu came about during the days of the Joseon dynasty in Korea, which lasted from the late 1300s until the late 1800s.
It was originally made with shaved ice, similar in style to the snow cone, and topped with pieces of rice cake or sweet red bean paste. While the latter remains a popular option that can be found on the Café Seoulista menu, the dessert has evolved over the years.
What you’ll find at Café Seoulista is “snow bingsu,” so named for its textural resemblance to snowflakes. Lee uses organic milk, which is put in a special machine that immediately freezes it. It also includes honey and condensed milk and can be topped with a variety of goodies, such as strawberry, matcha, mango, and banana and chocolate.
Bingsu has gained popularity worldwide, but mostly in larger cities, so we should consider ourselves fortunate to be able to enjoy it in our backyard.
It’s the first treat I tried from Café Seoulista and it’s still a go-to, no matter the season.
Making the small shop stand out even more is a relatively new addition to the menu: coffee bean bread. As far as Lee is aware, she is the only one in Canada to serve it.
It’s pretty much what you’d expect, based on its name: coffee-flavoured bread shaped like coffee beans.
The treat originated somewhat recently in the Korean city of Gangneung, where the coffee culture is booming.
Lee was visiting the city with family when she came across the eye-catching creation.
“It caught me because the appearance is so cute and the taste is really good,” she said.
So, she bought a coffee bean bread maker from Korea, brought it home and now makes her own style using fresh espresso. The rest of her recipe is a secret, I’m told.
Want a bigger portion of bread? Try the brick toast.
“It’s called brick toast because it’s thick as a brick,” Lee explained.
The honey brick toast is a classic, but she also serves a version with condensed milk. It is made to order and takes 15 to 20 minutes to prepare, but it’s worth the wait. It is topped with freshly made whipped cream because Lee isn’t willing to serve her customers the pre-made, canned stuff like many others do. Hers is silky smooth, not oily. She recommends an Americano, black, to accompany this hearty treat.
While Lee offers some of the more familiar drinks, like espresso and cortado, a trip to Café Seoulista (Seoul+barista=Seoulista) isn’t complete without trying one of her many specialty Korean teas.
Korean tea isn’t like the tea that’s typically found here. Lee leaves the leaves out of it. They’re mainly fruit teas.
“What makes Korean tea special, and what we serve at our café, is 100 per cent natural ingredients,” she said.
Her favourite is the apricot tea, made with honey and Korean apricot syrup. It’s often drunk in Korea to help with digestion.
Honey ginger tea is another option, using fresh, sliced ginger.
One of the oddest-tasting but most incredibly delicious drinks is the Korean honey jujube tea. No, not the confection commonly found here. It’s a date-like fruit popular in parts of Asia, including Korea, where it is often used in cooking and for medicinal purposes.
At Café Seoulista, Lee embraces the past and present when crafting Korean treats. She sells the croffle — a croissant/waffle hybrid that is becoming increasingly popular in Korea — with sweet (syrup, ice cream, fruit) and savoury (cheese) topping options. It’s her favourite, so you should probably give it a try.
It isn’t all about the food for Lee. Sharing her culture with customers has proven to be equally rewarding.
Whether it’s food, television or music, she’s ready to discuss all things Korean with those who are interested.
“People not only want to experience the food and the desserts, but at the same time they want to experience the culture as well and they want to speak to the person who knows the culture,” she said.
Some who are not familiar with the Korean desserts and drinks might be hesitant to step inside and give it a taste, but Lee is ready to take the time to explain what it’s all about and help new customers make a decision.
Inside, it’s a welcoming atmosphere with warm decor, decorated by Lee, including a depiction of Gyeongbok Palace, a popular tourist attraction in Seoul.
Lee’s cute, whimsical creations include a cat on the window saying, “Good day!” Honestly, how much more of a welcome do you need?
Her advice to those who are unfamiliar with the menu items: “Think as if you’re meeting a new person, like you’re making a new friend from another country.
“You could be a little bit reluctant to try it, but once you try it, there’s a different world you can experience. If you’re only in your own circle, sometimes it’s boring. Why not get to know each other and be friends?”
The good stuff
Most popular: bingsu, honey brick toast
Scarlett Lee’s favourite: croffle
My favourite: strawberry bingsu, jujube tea
Nathan Taylor’s local food and drink column appears every other Saturday.