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Narratives  a gastronomic anthology

Han Brothers: Leemo & Leeto Han

La Bête by Andres Miranda

Even though my brother’s not involved, HANMOTO comes from our names. The TO is Leeto; the MO is me.

Leemo Han, chef-owner of Oddseoul, Hanmoto, and recently shuttered Swish by Han. Han's menus are clever modern, American-influenced twists of familiar Korean and Japanese izakaya flavours.

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La Bête sketch on Hanmoto's Instagram: La Bête

Just Opened in 2009 for TorontoLife: Swish by Han

Gallery: Swish by Han (September 2009). This is where it all began

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When I first met the Han brothers, Leemo and Leeto, it was early summer of 2009. The fresh faced duo were new to the Toronto restaurant circuit (although Leemo had spent time cooking at Edo, Japango and Omi; but Leeto was fresh out of Pennsylvania State University). Little could we predict that years later their progressive, contemporary, and most important of all, tasty and smart, South Korean-American mashup would take the city’s Hipster scene by storm.

But it wasn’t the clever twist on Korean that sets the Hans apart for me from many of their contemporaries, nor was it their brave (or fearless) charge to break into a very conservative area of the Financial district; it was the fact that they were also one of my first Introducing profiles on TorontoLife. And genuinely nice guys.

Their rustic space was a break away from the standard: there was exposed brick, unfinished wood floors, and antique furniture, but it was more a tribute to modern Seoul chic than distress Brooklyn. There were fancy chandeliers, carved wooden screens, and original artworks by grandpa Han (an art professor in Seoul). Near the rear of the dining room was a large, floor to ceiling, metal and glass divider salvaged from a GM plant that gave an Art Deco-inspired focal point separating the rear kitchen and the long dining room.

I remember all of this because it was distinct. The mishmash of materials, unique aesthetics, and open space, was strangely relaxing and attractive.

The food was also special because it was different. Not for the sake of being different, but because it was a true amalgamation of two cultures: both the Hans’ birth heritage and their upbringing in Philadelphia. It was none more obvious in their fun, lunchtime-only “spicy pork on a bun.” The deceptively simple name omitted the fact that between two halves of a soft roll (that absorbed all sorts of messy deliciousness) were sweet, unctuous curls of pork bulgogi, silky roasted red pepper, tartar sauce and oozing mozzarella cheese. Although I assumed that this might have been Leemo’s rift on the Philly Cheese Steak, I was corrected with the fact that, growing up, Leemo always threw together leftovers when he was at home and this was one of his success stories. In my mind this was one of Swish by Han’s specialties.

Although a great space that had its following, Swish by Han never seemed to get as much buzz as their second space, OddSeoul, on Ossington a few years later. Fashioned after a dive bar, the food was casual, and less refined, but had the same fusion sensibility that seemed to be embraced by the late night crowd. Here “The Loosey” quickly became the crowd favourite – a griddle smashed, super juicy, shredded short-rib slider that’s stuffed in a toasted challah roll with Big Mac garnishes (lettuce, American processed cheese, pickles, and a kimchi hollandaise).

Sadly, Swish closed quietly at the end of last year. But it wasn’t the last the city would see of that stunning GM metal and glass divider.

At Hanmoto, Leemo’s third restaurant and solo operation, much of those Swish's relics manage to manifest themselves in the new Japanese izakaya/snack shack inspired room. Han and his father put together the eclectic space that’s a bit of garage grunge, but with a chill hidden dive bar vibe. Besides a salvaged “prescription” sign lit high above salvage cabinets (a cheeky nod to the “what’s your poison?” reference when ordering drinks at the bar), live plants dangling from the rafters, that stunning art deco-inspired glass and metal divider (now a backdrop in the room’s northern alcove), there's an incredible tribute hidden behind a pair of carved wooden screens at the room’s heart.

This is my long introduction to the cover image of this post.

A stunning mural by artist Andres Miranda, La Bête depicts a dragon and tiger in mid-play or fight. The image is both a nod to Leemo (born in the year of the tiger) and his younger brother Leeto (a dragon), as well the city of their youth, Philadelphia (aka the city of Brotherly Love). But the warm fuzzies inside would also say, the image also exemplifies the brotherly bond shared between the Hans.

It’s also why I found Leemo’s simple explanation (the quote heading this post) regarding the meaning of Hanmoto so special. To me, it’s a theme that’s been apparent to me from the day I met the brothers at Swish: they've a deep brotherly bond. It's something wonderful to celebrate.*

*I can get a bit sentimental at times. *sniff*

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