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.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Mad For Garlic

I've been seduced by a chain restaurant.

Mad For Garlic has ten locations in Seoul and a mess of a menu that includes confusing items like chicken Teriyaki pasta. All of my years as a foodie--seeking out hole-in-the-wall Mexican goat soup joints and back alley pho, idolizing Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain--have taught me to avoid such places, generally with good reason. The only problem is, every dish we ordered at Mad For Garlic was packed with a wallop of flavor that made our taste buds sing.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Brunch at Cafe 62-16

A typical Korean breakfast consists of soup and rice, so the dearth of high quality brunch spots in Seoul means that on the weekends they're always packed with expats looking for a taste of home. Despite that, I would confidently wager that Seoul has more waffles per capita than any other city in the world. In cafe-filled neighborhoods like Samcheongdong, where we spent this Saturday, over half of the available retail space seems to be taken up by places that serve waffles and coffee. Here they're considered desserts instead of breakfast items, though, so at 11 or 12 in the morning, the cafes are all nearly empty.

This Saturday, Dan and I were in the mood for a hearty, western style meal, but instead of fighting the crowds at Suji's, we decided to make Cafe 62-16 in Samcheondong our brunch spot. As anticipated, the normally hopping cafe was empty when we arrived around 12:30.