Monday, July 26, 2010

Irenae Kalguksu

A couple of weeks ago, we stopped in at our neighborhood boonshik place for dinner and were surprised to find a sign explaining it was closed for personal reasons. After taking a few moments to scratch our heads in confusion, we wandered across the street looking for a replacement. Dan decided that several pictures of food posted next to a doorway looked like "the color of food he usually enjoys" (ie fiery red), so we wandered into Irenae Kalguksu and ended up having an extraordinary meal.

Sujebi, a mild noodle soup, is not really my thing; I've had it communally a few times, but left to my own devices, I always order spicier fare. The menu on our table, though, listed "olkeun sujebi," which was unfamiliar to me. I looked up "olkeun" in the dictionary and Dan and I liked what I found: "rather hot; somewhat peppery [pungent]." We ordered it as well as an octopus dish that included steamed rice and gochujang (red pepper sauce).

The sujebi, served in a generous bowl that could easily feed two, arrived with the expected vivid, orangish-red broth full of mussels and clams as well as a welcome surprise: green noodles! I checked with the waiter and confirmed that they were spinach noodles, which was something I'd never seen in sujebi before. The soup was peppery and pungeant as promised, but the tender, fresh spinach noodles provided a soothing balance to the spice. Dan and I agreed that while the soup was unlike anything we'd ever actually had at home, the handmade noodles made the dish taste comforting and homey. After two and a half years and countless versions of spicy soup, this was one of the best and most unique dishes I've had in Korea. In a city filled with delicious Korean restaurants crowding every block, I'm usually hesitant to recommend one unless the food is really exceptional, and for me, this is that sort of dish. Also, it's less than five dollars.

Though not quite as unique, the octopus dish was also excellent--ample greens gave it the same bright, fresh quality as the soup.

We recently returned with our friend Shira and tried the haemool pajeon (savory seafood pancake), which Shira declared to be the best dish she's had in Korea so far. The crispy jeon was jam-packed with seafood--muscles, octopi, shrimp, clams--as well as green onions. The bountiful seafood made the pancake physically heavier than your average jeon, but it tasted lighter because there was less greasy dough. Another absolute stand-out.

To get to Irenae Kalguksu, walk out Yaksu Station exit three and take a right at Dunkin Donuts. Take another right at the end of the alley, walk a few steps, and it will be on your right. (Pictured on the second floor below.)

Monday, July 19, 2010


I recently noticed an eel restaurant in my neighborhood. The first thing to grab me was a swarm of the ugly black creatures themselves squirming in a tank outside, as is the custom for most seafood restaurants here. A sign proclaimed that the restaurant offered eel in soup or grilled and, curiosity piqued, I decided to return later with Dan.

When we showed up for dinner and realized that the place had floor seating(as do over half the restaurants in my neighborhood), the pressure was on; Dan finds sitting on the floor to be incredibly uncomfortable, so the meal would have to be impressive to make it worthwhile.

Not long after we ordered the grilled eel, our friendly waitress began emerging from the kitchen with a long succession of side dishes, about half of which were fresh vegetables and half of which were pickled. There was a spicy salad, pickled garlic, and fresh ginger slices, among others. It wasn't entirely clear which of the panchan were meant to be consumed alone and which were meant to accompany the eel, but they were all so tasty that it didn't matter to us.

The one slightly unusual side dish was a small serving of what appeared to be spines (pictured above). A discussion ensued as to whether or not eels were vertebrates, and if so, were these eel spines? Neither of us were sure, though later internet research revealed that they were indeed. I took the first crunchy bite and, not to be outdone, Dan followed. They were airily crispy, not at all bone-like, which meant they were easy enough to eat, but basically a non-event as far as we both were concerned. Considering all the other delicious food packed onto our table, we couldn't really see the point of eating them. It's possible that, like so many other Korean foods, they offer a real or supposed health benefit, or maybe people just like the crunch.

I assumed we'd be grilling the eel ourselves at the center of the table, but five minutes later we were each served a plate of eel coated in soy sauce that had already been grilled and cut up. We placed the succulent bites on top of the lettuce and perilla leaves, added accompaniments, and wrapped the leaves up and popped them in our mouths.

The rich, tender eel was a little smoky and somehow perfectly complemented any of the delicious panchan we chose to heap on it. Dan favored the red pepper leaves with garlic and onion, whereas I loved the combination of the slightly minty perilla leaves with the fresh ginger slices, pickled ginger, and a dot of wasabi--and not just because of the aesthetically lovely results, though I'll admit that was a bonus. The vast array of available sides made me feel like I got to play cook and artist all at once, selecting complementary tastes and colors with minimal effort because it all tasted and looked so good--ironic, of course, considering the source.

In the end, Dan agreed that it was more than worth it to sit on the floor.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Banana Kicks

Snack-happy Koreans have a veritable feast of bagged goods to choose from at the convenience stores here, and I decided it would be fun to start highlighting some of the unique offerings that we don't get back in the United States. For the inaugural "convenience store oddity" post, I purchased a bag of Banana Kicks from my local Mini-Stop and made Dan my guinea pig. Banana is one of Dan's favorite flavors, but he is not a fan of the ultra-artificial variety of banana flavoring present in candy.

Before he tasted the Kicks, I asked him a few questions.

Q.What do you expect them to taste like?
A.I'm expecting them to not actually be that banana-like in flavor.

Q.What do you think the texture will be like?
A.Judging by the picture, I'm thinking probably similar to Cheetos or cheese puffs--crunchy, but with not a lot of resistance. That kind of puff fiber that melts on your tongue, if you know what I mean.

Q.Do you think you'll like them?
A.I think I will, actually. I'm expecting them to taste more like cereal than bananas, and I like cereal, so... I'm just really hoping they don't taste like that banana candy/fake banana flavor.

At this point, I opened the bag and caught a whiff of incredibly strong fake banana smell. I told him I didn't want to give too much away, but that we should probably get the water out to wash the snacks down.

He cautiously took a first, crunchy bite and looked contemplative while I waited for the verdict, and then announced: "Not bad. It is the fake banana flavor, but it's overpowered by the cereal flavor."

I tried a couple and didn't like them at first, but warmed up after a few more. Dan's predictions about the crispy, yielding texture were accurate and there was a nice subtlety to the fake banana flavor; if they had used much more of it, it would have overwhelmed the Kicks and made them disgusting. Overall, we both agreed that they weren't necessarily a snack that we'd buy again, but they were good enough to finish the whole bag.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fish Organ

The other night, Dan and I stopped in at a hole-in-the-wall Korean joint for some spicy soup. He got the dongtae jjigae, pollack soup, while I decided on the boodae jjigae, a soup that sets itself apart from most of its kind thanks to the addition of two American ingredients that date back to the Korean war: spam and hot dogs. I know, I know, that sounds horrifying, but I feel very strongly that Koreans have an aptitude for transforming otherwise inedible meats into dishes that are truly delicious.

Much of the time, the quality of the food at Korean restaurants is inversely proportional to the amount of effort put into the interior decorating. Restaurants with decrepit tables, blank white walls, and stark neon lighting almost invariably produce delicious food, and if the woman waiting on you is a friendly but feisty octogenerian, it bodes especially well. This restaurant had all the promising signs, and it didn't disappoint. For six dollars, our meal included two grilled fish and the best omelet side dish I've ever had. Plus, our elderly server got an entertaining kick out of Dan's penchant for spicy foods and periodically walked by to chuckle to herself. At one point, she even declared "ohhhh, verryyy gooood" in a thick accent while watching Dan slurp his soup.

Halfway through our meal, I was in the middle of an animated story when I noticed that Dan had frozen. Slowly, in a quiet but tense voice, he said "Follow my eyes." I looked down to where a giant, veiny fish organ was perched upon his spoon. I don't know what part of the fish this is, but I understood his alarm, because I experienced the same reaction the first time I found one in my soup--and that one wasn't nearly as monstrous as his. I assured him that it was not unusual for this to be included in his soup, and he lifted it onto an empty dish, where it remained for the rest of the meal (out of my line of sight, as per my request).

I think it goes without saying that there's nothing inherently disgusting or wrong with eating fish organs, but I am fascinated by the fact that people who grow up eating such foods consider them appetizing while people like Dan and I, who are adventurous eaters in many ways, find them revolting. Lately I've been reading about critical windows that appear in the human brain for abilities like music and language, and I almost wonder whether there's a "bizarre foods" critical window as well. I'll have to await further neurological research. In any case, despite my recent triumph over the long-feared Korean blood sausage (not to mention chewy, unidentifiable pig bits), I feel confident that I will never be able to chomp down on veiny, gelatinous fish sac, and Dan wasn't either.


The lemon sorbet at Demitasse in Buamdong is a mouth-puckeringly perfect summer treat. Each bite of the icy sorbet delivers a strong, pure note of real lemon in harmony with just the right amount of sweetness--I'm hooked.

I'd contend that the sorbet is reason enough to visit this out-of-the-way neighborhood of Seoul nestled between the mountains, but there are plenty of other reasons to recommend it for a visit--the stunning views in every direction, the friendly, small town feel, and the quiet, roomy sidewalks on weekend afternoons when most corners of this crowded city feel slightly suffocating.

And then there's the fried chicken and the cupcakes.

We dipped the pieces of chicken at Cheers into the spicy sweet chilli sauce, then just a few flavorful grains of sea salt, and finally washed it down with a cold swig of Korean beer. The Koreans didn't invent fried chicken, but I'd dare to say they've perfected it--they render out the fat in the skin to produce a delicate, crackly crust, and I've started to think of the sweet chilli sauce as an indespensable part of any fried chicken experience.

Afterwards, because I've made a pledge to sample a cupcake from every single purveyor in the Seoul area (or at least the ones I walk past), we stopped in at the aptly named Cupcake to purchase two of their signature treats. The entire shop and the cupcakes themselves were so cute that I was skeptical--often proprietors of restaurants/cafes/bakeries in Seoul that try so hard to capture a certain aesthetic forget that the food is the point. Had their intense focus on rainbows and tiny Scandinavian figurines detracted from the quality of their baked treats?

Not at all, I'm happy to report. In fact, the "chocoholic" cupcake I tried soars into the number one spot of the current Seoul cupcake hierarchy. The density left room for textural improvement, but the cardinal cupcake sin of dryness was not committed and the rich frosting was definitely the best of any so far. Plus, the adorable "to go" box with a heart on it is the perfect accessory for when you're cruising the area on your pastel pink Vespa.

Any health-conscious visitors who decide to replicate our highly recommended culinary tour will be happy to know that easily accessible hiking trails in the area can help nullify the super-caloric effects of your meal, or at least diminish your guilt afterwards.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bar Da

Down a bustling Hongdae alley and up a perilous flight of stairs is the quirky, beach-themed Bar Da. The hand-painted sign strewn with electrical wires wouldn't necessarily have lured me in on my own, but fortunately I was with a friend who had been here before and knew of the charms that lay beyond. The bar is located on the second and third floor of the building; the second floor has two small rooms divided by a staircase and the more spacious third floor has an outside deck. The steps up to the second floor are some of the steepest I've ever encountered, and the narrow staircase leading to the third floor is perhaps even steeper and definitely more rickety. Once we arrived, though, we felt like we'd stumbled upon a relaxed hole in the wall beach bar in the middle of Seoul.
I loved the dark wood of the furniture and the cheerful red wall accents as well as fun, unexpected touches like a little boat affixed to an overhead beam and lantern lights softened with variously colored homemade papers. This place doesn't take itself too seriously, and the eccentric jumble of interior decor (Mona Lisa replica on one wall, rubber chicken on another? why not?!) works in its favor. I ordered a margarita and my companions nursed San Miguels and Tequila Sunrises. The drinks were potent and reasonably priced, but hedonists beware: anyone who over-indulges is at risk of tumbling down two of the most treacherous staircases I've ever encountered or, perhaps even worse, joining a wall full of artful pictures at the entrance of people who've passed out at the bar.