Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Silbi Jib: Insadong Gamjatang

My boyfriend, Dan, arrived in Seoul over the weekend and I wanted to make sure his first meal in Korea was a special one. Due to circumstances, though, I couldn't take him to any of my favorite restaurants; instead, we ended up ducking into a random spot in Insadong for lunch after I saw a sign advertising gamjatang for 5,000 won.

The inside of the restaurant was charming and graceful in the way that most traditional Korean restaurants are, and the panchan were what you'd expect for five dollars; four or five plates of kimchi, anchovies with peppers, and sweet radishes. I noticed a man eating alone, which was nice to see because that's typically frowned upon here. There were also English language menus available. Our grandmotherly server was exceptionally friendly, but when I heard her call out our order to the cook--"Two gamjatangs, not spicy!"--I was quick to politely request that she reverse the second half of the order. Although the majority of westerners I know love spicy food, Koreans have somehow been led to believe that even a dash of chili powder will singe our delicate taste buds.

Five minutes later, the lusty red bowls of gamjatang arrived, bubbling hot. Fortunately, our amended order spared no chili powder, which lined our bowls and made them glow. This was some of the best gamjatang broth I've ever had. They were also generous with the thick pieces of tender pork, which fell of the bone with the gentle prod of a chopstick. Halfway through the meal, I found myself doing a little dance on my chair without realizing it; the soup was that good. Dan got a stellar first Korean meal, and I have a new "go to" restaurant for gamjatang.

It's just past the GAGA gallery on Hweynamugil, towards the Tapgol Park end of Insadong.

Monday, June 21, 2010


I found the best brownies in Seoul. Trust me. I may enjoy a good cupcake from time to time, and that "time to time" may in fact be several times a week, but I am a true brownie connoisseur. Even in the states, it can be hard to find brownies that aren't too dry or cake-like--homemade is best, but, as much as I love 'em, eating an entire pan of brownies alone isn't good for anyone. Sure, I can "share" them with my boyfriend, but we both know that means he eats one and I eat nine. Not that that's an option for me now, since my apartment, like the majority in Seoul, has a stove-top and no oven.

I digress.

If you like brownies, go to Gourmet in Samcheongdong. The brownies there are soft and moist and topped with almonds, and each bite delivers a punch of high-quality cocoa. They are good by any standard. They also have treats like black olive ciabattas and tomato and mozzarella bread encrusted with rosemary. Plus, their perishable food section is an amusing hodge podge of random items for a place that clearly strives to live up to its name--sure, the French chocolates qualify as "gourmet," as do the fancy cheeses, but what about the baked beans, Nutella, and lone can of coconut milk?

Don't go to Gourmet if you're looking for a wide assortment of foreign goods, but do go if you want the best brownies in Seoul. Of course, if anyone wants to prove me otherwise, I am more than happy to taste any challengers to the title.

So where's the picture of this delicious brownie I ate? Well, sometimes I get so excited to try desserts that I tell myself I'll take a picture after the first bite. But if that first bite is gooey and rich and merely whets my appetite for more...well, I apologize.

Hanok (Traditional Korean House) Lunch: Sagandong 9 Beonji

Our first course at Sagandong 9 Beonji, a humble-looking guest house tucked away in a little alley near Insadong, was silken tofu covered in grilled onions and a sauce that made me wish more than anything I could pick my plate up and lick it at the end without scandalizing my straight-laced co-workers. Instead, I had to settle for incompetent attempts to get every last drop with my fork. I had expected a rigidly traditional interpretation of classic Korean dishes, so the onion twist on the tofu was a happy surprise. When the first course was followed by a sauteed mushroom salad with a slightly spicy orange vinaigrette, I knew I could expect a feast of fresh, simply prepared food full of small surprises, which is exactly what I got. Not unfil the fifth course did the traditional Korean food arrive: bossam (steamed pork), kimchi, sesame leaves, and dwenjang jjigae(bean paste soup). Even that was tweaked, though: the dwenjang jjigae had a unique flavor dominated by the plentiful mushrooms in the broth, and as someone who loves this type of soup, I can say in all honesty that it was the best I've ever had.

The several open rooms of Sagandong surround an inner courtyard where the owner's adorable dog naps, giving the place a cozy feel. The people who run the establishment also live there, and rooms are available for lodging, but be warned that guests sleep on the floor in traditional fashion. The owner said that during the summer months, diners can eat out in the courtyard under the evening sky, which sounds heavenly. Sagandong is in the middle of the city, but the place exudes a bucolic stillness that, combined with the tasty dishes, left me feeling relaxed and overwhelmingly content. By the end of our three hour lunch, even my perpetually stressed out co-workers put down their phones for a moment and gave the rocking chair in the corner a spin.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Neighborhood Boonshik

Just down the street from me, tucked between two old women's clothing stores on the ground floor of a large, multi-story building, is a hole-in-the wall restaurant with four tables run by one assertive woman named Eunkyoung. Eunkyoung has requested I call her "big sister," which is the appropriate name for someone slightly older than you according to Korean custom. For diplomacy's sake I comply, although frankly she's more of an "aunt" than a sister.

Monday through Saturday, 9am-8pm, Eunkyoung is at her restaurant serving up her versions of simple, classic Korean soups and fried rice dishes. The selection is smaller than what you'd find at a Kimbap Chonguk, of course, but the prices are the same and the dishes are twenty times better.

There are lots of reasons to justify the infrequency of cooking since I arrived in Korea, including long work hours and living alone, but really, it comes down to this amiable, round-faced woman who serves up meals that are cheaper and more delicious than I could make on my own. Four dollars for some of the best soondubu (spicy tofu soup) I've ever had! Plus, she makes all of her own gochujang, don kass, and dwenjang sauces.

Most of the restaurant's customers work in the building, and every evening kids taking tae-kwon-do a floor above come in for her candy-like sticks of ddok-bokki (thick, fried noodles in red pepper sauce). Once, when I explained I had a blister from hiking, she made me take off my shoe and sock in the middle of her restaurant so that she could apply ointment and a Band-aid. Yesterday, when I came in after several days of stomach-aches that had forced me to eat porridge until I was mad with boredom and hunger, she served the best version of omu-rice I've ever had (tender chunks of potato, carrot, and cucumber topped with a stellar, home-made onion sauce) and then gave me plum juice and some sort of ball of herbs to take with water.

Not that our relationship is without bumps. I can't stand the texture of algae, but she insists that I eat it as a side dish because, like many Koreans, she claims that it purifies my blood. And once, when she invited me to accompany her to church, I felt so awkward about my inability to respond gracefully in a language not my own that I decided to pretend I couldn't understand her at all. (It wasn't that much of a stretch.) Other times, Enkyoung's readily offered opinions might offend someone accustomed to subtlety. Recently, when a mother and baby appeared in the shop and I lit up, she asked, "When are you getting married? You need a baby."

Actually, Eunkyoung is representative of a lot of interactions I have with older people in Korea; she's a bit pushy and there are some ways in which we'll never understand each other, but I don't doubt that she has good intentions. Knowing that I can count on her for a warm smile, a filling meal, and a Band-aid when I need it makes me feel like less of an outsider in the city where I live.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Butter Cream & Cilantro: Hongdae Sunday

Armed with a camera and a giant water bottle, I go on 4-5 hour walks every Sunday with no plan other than to investigate every alley, side street, and shop that I happen to come across that looks mysterious or appealing. I spent this Sunday in the vibrant Hongdae area and explored the neighborhood top to bottom until my legs were sore. I made a lot of wonderful discoveries: hidden sculptures, a giant disembodied teddy bear head, a mural of two middle-aged businessmen kissing, and the location of my favorite Korean drama, The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince.

Of course, buying food is always an important part of my neighborhood explorations. Here, I made my first food purchase at Cloud 9 Cupcake.
I've been trying a lot of cupcakes over the past several months. A lot. I've been to all the recommended spots in Itaewon, but I also stop in at almost every little shop I see during my weekly strolls. I have yet to write about any of my experiences because they've ranged from forgettable to downright awful. The worst, a couple of weeks ago at a shop near the Gangnamgu Office Station, was a gorgeous looking gingerbread cupcake with a gingerbread man perched jauntily on top. I anticipated biting into this cupcake for the rest of my walk and on the entire train ride home, but the cake turned out to be so dry, and the frosting so sticky and odd tasting, that I had to throw most of it away. The best cupcake, from a place in Itaewon that's received a fair amount of attention from food bloggers, was also somewhat dry, though not nearly as bad, and tasted like it came from a box. Cupcakes from this place will suffice when the craving strikes, but I'm still looking for that place that inspires saliva-inducing daydreams like Sprinkles in Los Angeles or Magnolia in New York.

Despite all this, somehow I am optimistic every time I bite into a new cupcake. "This'll be the one," I think. Cloud 9 gave me reason for additional optimism. Most of its cupcakes were labelled "saeng cream," the light whipping cream that Koreans favor but that doesn't satisfy my sweet tooth; however, several were labelled "butter cream." Bingo. I picked out a very humble looking maple butter cream cupcake and ate it on the steps of a closed cafe some time later. It was good! The frosting was rich and sweet and the cake was slightly more dense than I expected but not at all dry. This was definitely my most successful cupcake experience so far. The maple flavor was unique and I am definitely a maple fan, but I do wish Cloud 9 carried a traditional chocolate butter cream cupcake--I'm guessing the flavors alternate and I will be back to see what else they offer in the future. This place is at the top of the heap so far, but I'm still searching for my personal version of
cupcake heaven.

Sorry the picture quality is so poor.I was distracted by the thought of eating my cupcake.

Early on in my stroll, I had my first taco truck sighting in Seoul (I hear there's another one in Itaewon) and I had to try it out. When I came back for dinner, the owner informed me that he had lived in Irvine until last year. He has a couple of interesting offerings, like the "salsa bibimbap," but I decided to play it safe with a quesadilla. I was surprised when he pulled out a blow torch and began crisping up the tortilla and onions--I'm not sure whether the grill was broken or that's his signature technique. He loaded the quesadilla with his homemade hot sauce and cilantro, a rarity in Korea that set me atwitter with anticipation.

The hot sauce, which left my lips stinging for an hour afterward, was definitely the highlight of the meal. I wished the meat were marinated and the cheese were of higher quality, but this is Korea and I'll take what I can get, which in this case was pretty damn good.