Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I found myself in a quandary over the weekend: what do you get a 38-yr-old woman for her birthday when you've known her for less than two weeks? Normally, the answer would be "nothing," but my co-worker has already proven to be sweet, funny, and helpful, and she was nice enough to get me a little welcome gift my second day in the office. I wanted to show my appreciation with a birthday gift, but the language difference makes it nearly impossible to communicate with her and the black business suits we're required to wear to the office haven't provided any hints about her tastes. I decided a nice bottle of wine would be a relatively safe option, but when I arrived at the wine shop on a Sunday afternoon, it was closed. Fortunately, I'd seen Chateau Chocolat on the way and decided a lovely box of chocolates was a suitable alternative.

I went with the "New World" set (whatever that means) for just under $20, and felt that the beauty and quality of the chocolates warranted the price.

While I was there, I decided to try one of their many intriguing varieties of hot chocolate. Since discovering Mexican hot chocolate at a late stage in life (not something I grew up with in Idaho), it's been difficult for me to settle for plain hot chocolate, so I decided to order the Aztec Chili.

Oh my my: emphasis on the chili. The chocolate was dark, viscous, and seriously spicy. There was more of a kick in this hot chocolate than in the kimchi jjigae I'd consumed for lunch a few hours before. I repeatedly went back for more sips because the first experience of chocolate on my tongue was so creamy and pleasant, but then the spice would bust through and ruin my revelry. It wasn't a level of spice that I couldn't handle, but it grated my throat and was way too strong for a dessert. If this had been better balanced, it would have been truly delicious; instead, I had to throw it away before I'd even finished a quarter of it. Next time I'll try the Classic Elixir.

Of course, I also had to take home a few chocolates of my own. The results? Creamy, rich, perfect.

Next Valentine's Day or White Day, skip the ubiquitous convenience store chocolates and head to Chateau Chocolat.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ka Na An Gamjatang

"You're not allergic to MSG, are you?" was the way my boss prefaced the restaurant he took me to last week. He went on to explain that most "street restaurants" use heavy doses of the seasoning, and during the walk to our destination, I worried about what "street restaurants" might mean. Seoul is filled with food stalls and makeshift restaurants created by throwing a few plastic tables and chairs together on the sidewalk, particularly during the summer months, but it was thirty degrees and I was in no mood to linger outside.

I was relieved when we arrived at Ka Na An, a full-fledged restaurant with four walls that was founded in 1983. Phew! I realized that Mr. Kim is so accustomed to working in and traveling to hotels that in his mind there are two types of dining establishments, "hotel" restaurants and "street" restaurants.

Upon entering, we were met with a woosh of hot air and the spicy, salty smell of Korean broth that permeates the streets and alleyways of Seoul. Mr. Kim had taken me to this particular spot because he knew of my love for gamjatang, which translates to “potato soup” but usually includes only a couple of potatoes that aren't the focus of the meal. Instead, it's the large pieces of pork spine covered in tender, flaky meat. Once the steam coating my glasses had disappeared, I glanced at the menu on the wall above us, which was sparse because Korean restaurants tend to specialize in one or two dishes. We discussed which add-ins we would select for our soup and ultimately opted for glass noodles as well as the dough flakes in the shape of flattened coins that are the trademark of sujebi, another classic Korean dish. The final decision to make: soju or no? I said “no” because I am accustomed to thinking that declining alcohol is the polite choice, but when Mr. Kim looked disappointed, I remembered that Korean co-workers bond over soju and he also probably wanted to unwind after his fourteen hour work day (seriously, he had worked fourteen hours that day, and it was no exception). “Why don't we decide after the food comes, and if it looks good we'll get some?” he suggested. As soon as the large metal vat filled with bright red liquid was placed on the burner between us, he requested soju.

This is the one dish I could never find a suitable version of in L.A.'s vast Koreatown, and Ka Na An provided the perfect Korean homecoming. We cheerfully filled our insides with the warmth of hot pepper, pork, and soju until everything took on a fuzzy quality and the bitter cold outside was a distant memory. At the end, the friendly ajuma serving us poured cooked rice into the remaining liquid and fried it up with sliced bits of nori. Delicious!

Note: If you are carnivorous but slightly wary of consuming pork spine, I urge you to try this soup at least once. I tasted this dish before I knew what it was, and by the time I found out I was too addicted to care.

To get to Ka Na An, take the orange line to Yaksu Station. Take exit one, hang an immediate right down the alley, and it's on your right. However, there are plenty of high quality gamjatang/haejangtang restaurants, and if you're not close, I'd recommend finding one in your area.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tomato and Bacon Salad

A few of these first few posts will be about food that I don't typically seek out in Korea, but I had the opportunity to stay at a hotel for a week and figured I may as well write about my experiments with the room service there:

I tend to think of salads as the perfunctory opening act for the meal's main event, so the few salads I've had in my lifetime that have overcome that bias stick out in my mind. The first was from Father's Office in Los Angeles and bursting with fresh, seasonal mushrooms. The second one came from Tavern on the Green in New York and featured spinach tossed with lightly toasted hazelnuts, thin parmesan shavings, and a fragrant, light lemon dressing. The picture above is of the third, which comes from the hotel where I work (I won't reveal the name, but send me a message if you're in Seoul and want a treat). For the first time in my life, I enjoyed stewed tomatoes. I also thought about this salad for most of the remainder of the day and ordered it the next. In fact, I may need to order it tomorrow. Sure, it contains the Korean version of bacon (softer than the American kind), which some may contend is cheating, but I have had plenty of salads with meat in my lifetime, and none of them were in the same league as this one. Each piece of lettuce was coated with the perfect amount of vinegary dressing, which was infused with the taste of the tomatoes and bacon. The earthy parmesan shavings were the perfect complement.

After the salad I had a red Thai curry that was something of a disappointment in comparison. It wasn't spicy enough for my liking, and tasted like a curry I could get from a Thai place on any corner in L.A. The one element that elevated this curry above the rest was the texture of the vegetables. The asparagus, for example, was firm and springy on the outside, but each bite gave way to a divine, soft center that melted on my tongue without being mushy. I dug out all of the equally well-cooked vegetables and left much of the actual curry in the bowl, although that was mostly because I was still full from devouring the salad.