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Into the trees at the Rich Forest Cafe 

Eclectic and eccentric pan-Asian tastes at the Rich Forest Cafe means there's one more reason to stick to the north end.

If you've walked down Bloomfield Street lately, you might have noticed the nondescript signs on the former union clubhouse advertising the recently opened Rich Forest Cafe. The words "where friends meet," printed beneath the restaurant's name, reveal little about the pleasant surprise that awaits you in this windowless basement.

The Rich Forest Cafe is a warm, lively and unusual restaurant. It's got quirks, like an alternate name, for instance, written in Korean on its signage that translates into "One thousand tastes." The extensive menu offers authentic Korean fare alongside Chinese, Japanese and Canadian dishes.

I head to the Rich Forest on a Sunday afternoon for a late breakfast with two friends. We walk through a jungle of fake plants and are greeted by a friendly server. The cafe is decorated in an array of mismatched themes with eclectic adornments, including lobster traps, hanging fishing nets, Greco-Roman busts, Japanese parasols, toucan paintings and a fake-stuffed moose. The background music is equally varied---an odd concoction of salsa, country classics, Lady GaGa, Korean pop, Rhianna and the Backstreet Boys.

I order dol-sot bi-bim-bap, described as "plain and tasty" ($11.45) off the Korean menu. "Bi-bim-bap" literally means "mixed rice," while "dol-sot" refers to the piping-hot stone pot the meal comes in. My bi-bim-bap arrives in a cloud of steam with small side dishes of kimchi (spicy-pickled Chinese cabbage), pickled daikon, carrot and a slimy but flavourful seaweed salad. Bi-bim-bap is a hearty dish, comprising a meal in itself, with spinach, carrot, sprouts, ground beef and an egg served over top of a hefty helping of rice. The egg and vegetables slowly cook at our table, while the rice gets a nice crispy texture from simmering in the hot sesame oil. The server brings a bottle of fiery Gochujang, a delicious chili sauce when squirted liberally on the bi-bim-bap.

The Chinese dish ja-jang myun ($7.99) gives us a bang for our buck, netting us a heaping portion of steamed wheat noodles, swimming in a slightly sweet black bean, onion and beef sauce. The noodles also come with a side of pickled radish and salty black bean paste.

On a return visit, I bring my friend Virgil, who's travelled in Korea and is a student of Korean cooking. He orders gam ja tang ($8.95), a pork soup made from meat still hanging off of a pig's spine. The spicy broth is thin and tastes as though it hasn't matured long, but there's a huge portion of tender meat that falls off the bone easily. We also go for on bul-go-ki ($15.95), a pile of thinly sliced barbecue steak served on a large cow-shaped cast iron pan. Virgil's momentarily transported back to Korea when scarfing the sweet steak.

There are still quirks to work out---this restaurant has only been open for a couple of months---on the menu, which promises a variety of sushi, but it's not yet available. The Canadian menu, including delicacies such as "scoops of egg," is also sporadically unavailable.

After the meal, we sip free refills of coffee while one of the kitchen staff pounds a few tunes out on the piano. When we clamber up the stairs back into the outside world, it takes our eyes a few moments to readjust to daylight. This cafe has a surreal quality, causing me to feel like I've been sucked into a strange and pleasant dream. Kind of like this sweet corner of the north end itself.

Lizzy Hill is a freelancer and north end dreamer. Rate the Rain Forest Cafe online at thecoast.ca.

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