Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I'm Her Little Man

I've always been more of a "toast and jam" kind of girl, but over winter break in California I discovered the pleasures of bread and butter.

For Christmas, our dear friends (and my former employers) gave Dan and me a gift card to Hatfield's, a place in Hollywood that was named one of the 10 best new restaurants in America by Bon Appetit last year.  A glance at Yelp beforehand confirmed our friend Heather's insistence that whatever else we ordered, we had to get the "unreal" Croque Madame.

This posh version of the classic French sandwich featured yellowfin tuna, prosciutto, and a quail egg, but what really gave it that "Oh good Lord, I'm melting into my chair" quality was the buttery bread holding the sandwich's plump contents together.  I don't know how the bread tasted so heavily of butter without being soggy or overly rich, but instead it was crisp, airy perfection.

The meal at Hatfield's was the most expensive I've ever had in my life (thank goodness for the gift card).  The beauty of bread and butter, though, is that it can be enjoyed by princesses and paupers alike, and by the end of my vacation I'd transitioned into the latter category.

Enter Christmas present number two. Dan's mom had given us (among many other lovely gifts, some edible and some not) a trio of compound butters that she'd made from her own garden: "That's Italian!," "Scarborough Fair," and "Zesty."  The ingredients for the first two probably aren't hard to figure out as long as you're a Simon & Garfunkel fan, and the third one featured citron, lemon and orange zest as well as lemon verbena.  We enjoyed them on the final two mornings of vacation spread on La Brea Bakery's soft olive oil and thyme bread, and it made for a simple but truly delicious breakfast.  (Note: the tangerine flowers are Dan's handiwork.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010


In the month since I last posted, food has been as much a part of my life as always.  Almost all of my spare moments at work and more at home are spent in the companionship of my favorite food blogs (which, incidentally, turn out to be many of Gwyneth Paltrow’s favorites as well, fueling my silly belief that she and I would be fast friends if we met, kicking back over a glass of wine and discussing our mutual love of Spain and David Lebovitz…not that I think about that sort of thing).

I also tried my first ever xialongbao during a vacation to Shanghai.  To the uninitiated, as I was until recently, xialongbao are also known as “soup dumplings” because their delicate (at least, if they’re well-made) wrappings magically hold hot soup inside.  The ones we ordered at Ling Long Fan in the French concession were paper thin on the outside and filled with succulent morsels of pork and rich, fatty liquid  that flooded into my mouth in a delicious gush when I bit down on them.  We ordered three steamers’ full and they were all fantastic, but the twelve seasoned with ginger were a borderline religious experience.

And then, of course, I’ve been continuing to scheme about cooking at home more often—I went back to Gourmet after the ink noodles proved to be a bland disappointment and purchased an actual bottle of ink.  My 8am-midnight workdays have hardly allowed for experimentation in the kitchen, but this week my schedule is returning to normal and I’m determined to try an ink sauce recipe I found on youtube made by a bald, bespectacled Italian man named Mauro.  I don’t actually speak the language, but by using the video as a visual aid, along with my four years of Spanish and the blessing of cognates, I think I’ve been able to decipher the simple recipe.  Wine, garlic, tomatoes, ink, squid--what could go wrong? (Knock on wood...)

This afternoon, I told my co-workers I was meeting a friend for lunch but instead walked to my nearby apartment and whipped up a grilled kimcheeze sandwich and ate it with Peggy and the rest of the Mad Men gang.

I must say, my sandwich looked much more appealing than the white bread concoction she ate out of waxed paper with Paul, plus I had the added benefit of not getting sexually harassed afterward.

So, food is still a major part of my life, and it always will be.  But I’ve realized that for the five months leading up to Dan’s visit, every single meal I ate was enhanced by the anticipation of his arrival.  I often dine with my co-workers, and during those months, even when six out of seven of them were glued to their smart phones or carrying on fast-paced Korean conversations I desperately tried to follow but couldn't, I imagined coming back to whichever restaurant I was at with Dan later.   It made me feel less lonely, more connected to him, and more excited about the food.

Then he was actually here, and the only problem was that by that time, I had been to so many restaurants I wanted to share with him that I knew I could never fit them all in.  It’s still hard for me not to feel dramatic about the places we didn’t get to go, either because we didn't have enough time or we were thwarted in cruel and humorous ways (the shellfish restaurant with transcendent scallops I just knew he’d love was too packed to get into, for example, and then there’s the time we tried to eat at the Bulgarian restaurant Zelen and accidentally ended up at the French restaurant next door thinking "Mustard chicken? That doesn't seem very Bulgarian."), but really, we spent two months of bliss using my summer bonus to eat at almost every amazing restaurant I’d planned on taking him to, and even discovering a few I hadn’t planned on.

So now, here I am, trying to recover the enthusiasm I had for eating before and during his visit while constantly being reminded that food is as much about the people you share it with as anything else.  Even the best of meals is only mediocre when one is dining alone(and though I wish the reverse were true, I find that eating mediocre food with people I love doesn't magically make it delicious, though it does make the experience a lot more fun).

On Sunday, after a strenuous, stair-filled hike along the fortress wall that stretches for miles above stunning views of Seoul, three steaming plates of dumplings and a basket full of cupcakes were just what I needed.  Even better, the hike and the food were shared with two wonderful friends, one of them in the "oldest and dearest" category.  Food still doesn't taste as good as when Dan was here, but it's getting better.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Gostiny Dvor

Last week, I received a message from a woman named Megan I'd met once five years ago through a mutual friend. We'd barely talked at the time, but we were Facebook friends and she had noticed we were both in Seoul. One of the fun things about living so far from home is that even the most fleeting connection with someone from your past is reason enough to forge a deeper one--"We met once a long time ago and we have a mutual friend; wanna meet for Russian food?" And so it was decided. I invited along my friend Shira (and Dan, of course), Megan invited a friend too, and a few days later we were sitting under the glimmering chandeliers of Gostiny Dvor making awkward "getting to know you" conversation. Well, almost all of us; Megan's friend was running a bit late.

I found Gostiny Dvor while scouting Uzbeki restaurants in the neighborhood near Dongdaemun, which is within walking distance of my workplace. We went to the first of them a couple of weeks ago and after a lamb and rice feast that cost $10, I decided I wanted to try every Uzbeki establishment in the neighborhood I could find. Dan was happy to oblige. I wasn't always sure whether the restaurants we were going to were Uzbeki or Russian, and some of them seemed to be a mixture of both. However, when we walked inside Gostiny Dvor, it was almost immediately apparent that it was thoroughly Russian--from the red nesting dolls on display above the kitchen to the menu filled with items featuring smoked fish, mayonnaise and beets.

We all immediately liked the look and feel of the place, which had an aesthetic that Shira aptly describe as "a Chekhov play from 1904." We were delighted by the decor and baffled by the menu in equal proportions. So many options! And so many of them featuring beets! As we all scratched our heads and shared the unusual stories of how each of us had ended up in Korea, Megan's friend arrived and...the rest of us knew her! Shira's only been here a month, Dan's been visiting me (and not meeting anyone) for two, and I've led a pretty reclusive existence since arriving here in February, so we couldn't have been more surprised or amused to see Ryan, who we had briefly met at a Mexikorean dinner party that the folks at O'ngo had thrown a week prior. After the party, Shira, Dan, and I talked sheepishly about how we hadn't tried to make friends while we were there, laughing together and snorting down the delicious pulled pork tacos at our own table. Now we had a chance to make amends for our anti-social ways and get to know Ryan better.

Still at a loss as to the menu, we decided to order items described as "the oldest Russian soup" and "the most popular Russian salad." Considering our ignorance of Russian food, we figured ordering superlatives was a sound strategy. We also requested the Baltika #6 beer but were served #7, which turned out to be a happy mistake, judging by the contented sighs of the beer connoisseurs among us. Normally a wine drinker myself, I only recognize three kinds of beer: light, dark, and wheaty. This was light and may as well have been Hite as far as I was concerned, but I'll trust my more discerning friends, who told me it was much more flavorful. By this point, we were getting past the awkwardness and energetically trading stories and laughing.

Both the salad and soup were wonderful and surprising. The salad was so simple--a mayonnaise-laden version of the potato salad you'd get at a picnic back home, except there were chicken and peas rather than potatoes. However, something about it tasted more delicious and complex than an average potato salad; I wish I knew what. The soup was also very simple, and I was surprised to find that lime and dill complement each other so well since I'm so accustomed to eating lime with cilantro. I also hadn't realized that they were Russian flavors. I was so excited about this soup that I decided to look it up at work the next day, whereupon I discovered that Ivan the Terrible and I have at least one thing in common.

At this point, the dishes were coming fast and furious: potato dumplings (bites topped with sour cream were great, bites where I didn't get any were a little plain), baked salmon smothered in cheese, pepper stuffed with lamb and also topped with cheese, and a piece of sweet, creamy cake known as Medovic. For me, the highlights were the soup and the baked salmon, but everything exceeded my expectations. Dishes that had sounded and looked potentially stodgy or flavorless were instead delicate or creamy and punctuated by a bit of sourness. Gostiny Dvor has turned me into a Russian food enthusiast, and its pleasant atmosphere is ideal for meeting up with old friends or making new ones.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hongdae: Sura & Mobssie

The Hongdae area of Seoul reminds me of that all-consuming first stage of a relationship, where everything about the person you are falling in love with is new and fascinating.  There's excitement, but also a feeling of anxiety and longing: you want to know absolutely everything, and you want to know it immediately! 

So far, I've learned about the delicious gorgonzola and mushroom burgers, the hip Spanish bar, the cafe with oreo shakes that feels like a TV set, the gooey hot chocolate cake desserts that make my insides melt, and the clothing stores that boast original designs that occasionally even fit me (at 5'10'', this is news to sing about in Seoul), but there is so much more that I haven't been able to get to in my many visits to the area.

On the other hand, sometimes after the fourth amazing business we've been to in a day, I start to feel overwhelmed by all of the pleasing color combinations and perfectly mismatched vintage furniture. I need a little ugly in my life to balance it all out, which is I don't think I'd ever choose to live in this area; I wouldn't want to start taking it for granted or get bored of its loveliness.

We've been to Sura a couple of times now, and we love the hip-but-playful feel.  Both times there's been an equal number of people reading and socializing, and there's even a cool upstairs loft space for people who are interested in the latter.  This time, Dan and I started out at a table drinking an oreo shake and caramel latte (both tasty), then snagged the ultra comfy reading chairs.  Score!  As we continued reading our addictive novels (Motherless Brooklyn for Dan, Cranford for me), I celebrated the transition into the evening hours with a cool glass of sangria.

Later, we stopped in at Mobssie, which we discovered clears out just before 10pm (in the afternoons there's always a wait).  Mobssie is famous for their molten lava chocolate cake, and with good reason.  This cake doesn't merely have a molten center; it is liquid throughout, save for a half inch crust at the bottom of the mug.  It's essentially a hot chocolate cake, and it's made Mobssie famous; not a single table in the restaurant hadn't ordered one of the mugs, despite a large number of alluring chocolate desserts on the menu.  One bite and I understood why: it's a rich, gooey chocolate lover's dream. 

The interior decor is flawless as well, of course, with pretty tile tables and original photographs placed in groups on the wall just so. We also loved the mugs that the cake is served in: "Ideal for use at home or on safari."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Pakito is a little Spanish tavern tucked in an alley at the end of Hongdae's busy main strip. Drawn onto the front path by a quirky, hand-painted sign, we were further charmed by a stone painted "abierto" and propped casually near the entrance. It was precisely 6pm, their opening time, which seemed too serendipitous for us not to walk in and give it a try. Everything about the place felt cozy, creative, and well-loved. There were so many fun details, like the giant bull poking out from either side of a wooden pillar, the mural of Spain painted on an outside wall (viewable from the window), and even the name spelled in flower petals in the bathroom! (This marked the second time that day I covertly took my camera into a Hongdae bathroom, hoping no one would notice the bulge in my pocket and think something perverse was afoot.)

To make things feel more social, there's a big communal table in the center of the room in addition to smaller tables throughout, as well as bar seating next to the open kitchen. I got the sangria, which was tasty and refreshing, and we also got a couple of orders of bread--one topped with tomatoes, olives, and melted manchego, and one topped with shrimp-stuffed mushrooms. As expected, the food was just fine, but not excellent. This is a place to come for the warm, convivial atmosphere and order some wine or Spanish beer. Once you're a bit buzzed, the appetizers are satisfactory and inexpensive (each of ours was 4,000 won), but order the paella at your peril; I'll be sticking to Mi Madre for my major Spanish food cravings.

The tavern was already filling up at 7 on a Sunday evening, but I can't wait to go back on a Friday or Saturday night around 9, when I bet the place really comes alive.

Pakito is open from 6pm-2am, seven days a week.  To get there, walk out of Hongik University Station ex. 5, take a left, then another left at Man Studio.  Several blocks down, you'll see the sign on your right.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dark Day

Sunday was bright and humid here, but when I say that Dan and I had a "dark day," I mean it literally. A few days ago, we were at my favorite brownie spot, Gourmet in Samcheondong, when Dan spied packages of squid ink pasta tucked in the bottom row of a display case. Since discovering a gorgeous ink tagiolini dish coated in creamy pink sauce a few years back at my favorite Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, ink has become something I've sought out often, usually in the form of ink pastas or sauces and occasionally in risottos. There's something distinctly earthy and sharp about the flavor that I love, but I'd never tried making an ink dish myself, so I picked up the noodles and a can of plum tomatoes and then started dreaming of how I'd marry the two.

On the day I planned on making the squid ink pasta for dinner, Dan decided he had a lunchtime hankering for ja jang myeon, or noodles in black sauce, and we realized we had ourselves a theme day. Ja jang myeon is a Korean adaptation of a Chinese dish (word is that the Korean version has now entered China as a foreign food), and it's become so synonymous with Chinese food here that instead of asking "Do you want to go for Chinese?" my co-workers always ask "Do you want to go for ja jang?"(even though half of them order a different dish once we're at the Chinese restaurant).

Dan and I had ours at Yang Ja Gang Ja Jang Myeon, a place where the heavy slap of handmade noodles against a hard countertop can occasionally be startling. The noodle man, dressed all in white, stands at a front window holding long strands between outstretched arms. The strands attenuate and multiply with each thwack until they become the incredibly fresh, supple ja jang noodles set in front of patrons. The noodles arrive smothered in a black sauce made from fermented bean paste that is slightly salty and very comforting. I also love the vegetables in the ja jang at Yang Ja Gang: soft onions that melt on your tongue and savory potatoes and carrots with a delicately yielding firmness. At 5,000 won, or about four dollars, it's no wonder the place is always packed.

In between lunch and dinner, I snacked on a dark cherry pastry from Gourmet while we watched the Korean film "Mother." The film was--you guessed it--quite dark. Dan and I were both disappointed by it, actually, especially because I'd heard raves and even read a review that had compared it to a Hitchcock film, but I'll save those thoughts for my movie blog. (There is no movie blog.)

For dinner, I prepared a Fra Diavolo sauce for the ink noodles, which is a favorite of mine because it's simple, delicious, and spicy. I just sauteed some garlic, added the can of stewed tomatoes, put in a few heaping spoonfuls of gochu garu (Korean pepper powder), and let everything simmer for about thirty minutes. During the last few minutes, I threw in some fresh shrimp and tossed it with the al dente ink noodles and a bit of leftover pasta water. I dug in with great anticipation, only to discover that, despite the powerful black appearance of the noodles, I couldn't taste the ink at all. Much to my disappointment, instead it tasted like a plain ol' (albeit tasty) pasta dish. Dan had noticed that they sell jars of actual ink at Gourmet, so I think that's my next step. I haven't decided yet whether to incorporate it into a handmade pasta or make a sauce out of it. Either way, expect future pictures of me looking like a Bic pen has exploded all over my hands and mouth.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dak Dari ("chicken legs")

 If it's 2:30am and your stomach is rumbling, if you weren't able to get a chicken skewer at a street stand like you wanted because it suddenly began pouring and you had to grab a cab, if you're feeling buzzed and content after three cheap gin and tonics at a really cool bar you stumbled across that appeared to have been a converted parking garage covered in Sonic Youth and Neil Young posters, if there is an AMAZING lightning storm that you and your boyfriend want to watch out on the balcony because you live on the 18th floor and it seems that the entire hazy city is illuminated with every flash, and if there is nothing else in your cabinet except Dak Dari, I recommend eating them.

You'll find that although they don't taste like chicken and the bbq flavor is more subtle than you'd like it, at least they're crispy, which is impressive because they've been steeped in the humidity of your apartment for the past month. They'll take the edge off your hunger, give you something to munch on during the show, and they're not bad, really. But I wouldn't eat them under any other circumstances.