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Dining in Seoul


Eating her way from Grandma's Kitchen to next-wave top tables, JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHN finds that the best Seoul food spans regions, seasons and generations. Photographed by YOUSUN MOON.

Published on Nov 11, 2016


"A RAINY DAY IS A PANCAKE DAY," Angela Kim told me as a storm whipped up outside.

 

"On rainy days, Korean people go to suljip and eat pancakes and drink makgeolli because the sound of the frying pancakes is like the sound of rain falling."

Philosophy behind this excursion to a suljip, or pub, in the Gongdeok neighborhood on Seoul's southwestern riverbank sorted, we ate fried pancakes and drank makgeolli—the cloudy, slightly sparkling, fermented rice liquor that comes in more flavors than Baskin Robbins. I was lifting yet another drink to my mouth when a deepfried hot dog on a stick snuck into my field of vision. A guy in black-rimmed glasses peered through the divider between our booths, eyebrows raised and with an impish grin. "Want to try?" he asked. My friends exchanged glances and then fell into peals of laughter, toppling one of the bowls of kimchi stew on our crammed table.

Angela Kim
Angela Kim gears up for more makgeolli.

Hot dog guy, whose offer went rebuffed, had interrupted at an opportune moment. Angela, an epicurean expert whose start-up, Food Focus, has helped make her a TV personality on Korean cooking, her ever-smiling assistant Jiyoung Kim, and our photographer, Yousun Moon, had been giving me an important lesson in somaek. Think of it as a Korean sake bomb. Mix a third of a shot of soju with half a glass of beer, slam your spoon into it to create an effervescence explosion, then down it all in one. I had just lost a drinking game and was going to have to do yet another somaek as punishment when one of the ladies charitably volunteered to be my "black rose"—or, woman who drinks in your place because you're too much of a wimp. What was going on here? I'm the one who finishes the other people's drinks. Clearly, I'd not had a proper session with hardcore Korean women.

"In Korea, without beer or soju, people cannot be honest," Angela said. "Business meetings are hard without beer or soju. The drinks are an honesty genie."

Gongdeok Market
It's a suljip afternoon in Gongdeok Market.

We weren't exactly having a business meeting, but we were, technically, working. Angela had agreed to show me Seoul streetwise must-eats. Counting the deep-fried suljip grub and a boatload of market fare, black-pork barbecue and Korean fried chicken, a spin around the capital with her would be enough for a great culinary tale. But a newer facet of Korean food has begun to impress itself upon the most refined of global palates, prompting Michelin to announce in March that it will publish a Korean edition in 2017. It makes sense: the cuisine here is malleable, exceptionally diverse and, most important, distinct. Whether it's the gochujang (chili paste), the sesame, the sweetened soy marinades or the probiotic-gold-mine fermented foods, you can always tell you're eating Korean. Partly, I learned, that's because of a national addiction to umami. "We don't feel satisfaction without eating it," Angela said. "That's why there's always kimchi." Partly it's fidelity to lineage: in Korea you can chart a direct, delicious line from grandma's snacks to whitetablecloth degustation dishes. And you—or your black rose—can wash them all down with rice wine.

 

Akira Back served me a kimbap and Yousun giggled in surprise. The chef had fashioned what looked like a mini conical Japanese hand roll, but the photographer saw the after-school snack she grew up on. "When your mother or grandmother doesn't feel like cooking real food, she makes kimbap," Yousun said. We were among the first ever diners at Dosa, Back's brand-new upscale Korean kitchen in fancy Gangnam, and what was the first thing he sent out? The most common of Korean victuals, and, as it turned out, the first thing we saw in Gwangjang Market the next day. The rolls of sticky rice and pickles wrapped in seaweed brushed with sesame oil are usually tubular, like narrow maki rolls. The market ladies rolled them with the dexterity of concert pianists, added ground chicken and served them with an addictive wasabi sauce only available in Gwangjang. Back had marinated his seaweed in sugar and corn puree and cooked it in the oven for two hours before filling it with sticky rice and wild sesame powder. The micro-cone melted in my mouth. "It's my homage to early childhood," he told me.

Chicken roll
Rolling kimbap in Gwangjang Market.

The Korean-born Back grew up in Colorado and was a competitive snowboarder as a teenager until he began apprenticing with a Japanese chef in Aspen. "I thought he was the coolest guy in the world," he said. He was referencing Nobu Matsuhisa. Right. Now, Back has a stable of his own Japanese restaurants around the world, with openings in Bangkok and Dubai later year 2016. But Dosa is his first foray into Korean food, and Korea. The kimbap is the first hint that the menu is filled with memories, irony and artfulness.

Akira Back
Akira Back, and a painting by his mom, at Dosa.

The dish Seoul Garden is certainly his canniest combination of the three: asparagus, carrot, radish, brussels and bean sprouts, and rice puffs are arrayed Legoland-cute to look like a tiny garden, complete with two dried silk worms. Back had been a standout baseball player as a kid in Korea, but he would get intense game-day jitters. His mother fed him silkworm and bean shakes to quell his nervous stomach. "She never told me what was in the shakes because, as a kid, I'd never have eaten the worm," he said. I didn't want to eat the worm either. Part of my mission was to try what the pros recommended, so I gave it a shot, but I found the whole dish a bit too mealy. Maybe I still have some kid-like tastes. The Koreans I polled about their Dosa dinners uniformly said Seoul Garden was their favorite dish.

I will remember the tender-as-butter Iberian bo-ssam (boiled pork) cooked at 52 degrees Celsius for 48 minutes, served in magenta filets with a splinter of roasted fennel. But it's the sea pineapple rice bowl that left its imprint on my taste buds. Slightly sweet and also briny, the bit of the gooey texture is absorbed by the rice, meaning that though it's seafood, for those of us with a savory-leaning palate, it could be dessert. Back had a huge bowl of it to himself and though I'd consumed, at this point, eight other plates of food, I was envious of his superior portion.

Iberian
Iberian pork and fennel at Dosa, a restaurant in Gangnam.

Angela pointed out the sea pineapples to me in Gwangjang Market the next day. Shaped like giant acorns, they were off-white and coral, bobbing in a tank where three hand-sized squid were plotting their escape. I was glad I had eaten them all gussied up before seeing them live. We went from stall to stall, squeezing in at the little benches that surround the counters manned mostly by women cooking, chopping and frying foods that were originally intended only as easy eats for other market vendors, but became beloved by the whole country.

I have some quibbles with their affection for things like dwaeji kkeopdegi (marinated grilled pig skin)—though the collagen is supposed to be good for your complexion—and sundae. What a sneaky misnomer that is. It's an extra-fat Korean blood sausage, and eating a couple of slices prompted me to signal for some makgeolli. But the spicy stir-fried rice cakes were fiery delicious and gave me a pang of craving for the similar tangyuan dumplings my Cantonese grandmother used to cook in her cabbage and sausage soup.

 

We tend to think of comfort food as rooted and unchanging, but it can also be progressive, the hint of a nostalgic taste, even if embedded in a new context, able to transport you. That's what I felt with the spicy rice cakes, and it's what The Lounge at Park Hyatt Seoul is going for in its relaunched menu. "Gangnam people are used to trying new things," executive chef Massamiliano Ziano told me. "For Gangnam, this is comfort food. For the other side of the river, it would be complicated." There was bo-ssam sliced in squares the traditional way, but the pork belly had been marinated for 48 hours then cooked for 24 over low heat, which makes it super soft. There was octopus sashimi, which you normally eat with gochujang, but they aerate their chili sauce to make it lighter, resulting in almost a whipped cream that surprises you with its bite and doesn't overwhelm the fish. And there was bibimbap, but they call it "Korean paella" since it's made of chicken and shellfish in a crab broth on top of 12 grains—which toast against the inside of the hot stone bowl, soccarat-style. Ziano told me this was his favorite and he was spot on.

Bo-ssam
Bo-ssam, octopus and paella in The Lounge at Park Hyatt Seoul.

Elegant without being precious is the feel reinforced by the scene and the crowd in The Lounge. With floor-to-ceiling windows letting the lights of Gangnam twinkle around your dinner, The Lounge is a study in understated comfort, with an easy-going waitstaff and a make-whatyou-may-of-this vibe.

Every chef I spoke with in Seoul emphasized lightness, a careful skimming away of the unnecessary to get to the essence, and then rebuilding delicately around that. Each of the high-end restaurants I ate in echoed that reductionist theme not just in the food but also design. At the Four Seasons Seoul, Kioku is a bamboo-dominant, skylight-brightened, airy, three-tiered space designed by André Fu. The seasonal menu from Michelin-starred chef Kazumi Sawada includes fresh catch from Cheju Island and Japan, along with Sawada's acclaimed yuzu miso black-eye cod. Sit at the sushi bar to watch the chefs at work, or down in the dining room bathing in the light.

Four Seasons Seoul is actually full of light and simple luxury. My sunshine-drenched suite boasted views of Gyeongbok Palace and the Blue House, where the president lives, from all three rooms. And the turndown treats ranged from Mason jars of house-made plum teas to platters full of ripe red cherries. With all I was eating, I was beyond grateful for the enormous, wellkitted gym, complete with complimentary work-out clothes and Pilates Reformer, though sweating out the toxins would've been far less bearable had I not the grown-up nursery of a spa or the vast in-house onsen to look forward to. There's a fire pit in the lobby, an installation by artist Hwang Ran made of 150,000 hand-placed buttons, and arrangements and accents everywhere by famed florist Nicolai Bergmann, who opened a shop in the hotel at the request of his old friend, general manager Lubosh Barta.

On the grassy roof deck, Barta would like to put an enormous grill, which would allow the hotel to serve up some version of Korean barbecue. Until then, Angela Kim steers me to Itaewon. Hilly Itaewon is known as expat land, but it's also home to a slew of superlative barbecue joints. We went to Hanam Pig House, which specializes in black pig from Cheju raised on fresh veggies and volcanic water. The five-layer pork belly (ogyepsal) is cut so thick they don't trust you to cook it yourself. A waiter mans your grill, turning and cutting the meat, and the resulting slices that you dip in a fish sauce made from Cheju anchovies then package into your lettuce are crispy, chewy and juicy all at once, retaining a smoky flavor that seems to flow straight from that island's volcano.

Hanam Pig House
Five-layer pork belly fresh from the grill at Hanam Pig House.

Continuing the Cheju party, we headed to Magpie, a popular craft beer house that brews on the island. On tap that night: the American wheat and the Blackstone stout. Then we popped across the way to Friend Chicken, a hole-in-the-wall I needed to go to not because I was hungry for a second dinner, but because I couldn't leave Korea without diving into chimaek. Though a compound of the words for chicken and beer, the term signifies more than the menu. "It's the food culture," Angela explained as she ordered banban chicken (half and half, meaning fried and with chili sauce) and we settled in to watch Korean baseball and drink Hite lager. When I slowed down, Jiyoung waved her hands by her ears, chanting, "Eonjeggaji. Eogge chumeul chuge halgeoya. Eonjeggaji. Eogge chumeul chuge halgeoya." Drink now. Otherwise I'll keep dancing like this.

 

It may be apparent by now that Korean rice bowls are a personal favorite. There's, naturally, a Korean phrase that explains why: bapsim, or "steamed-rice power." (Bring it, I say.) But my love derives from bibimbap in a hot stone pot and three other Korean ladies who taught me to eat it in late-night noshing sessions so many years ago. The originally vegetarian monk's dish—you can get an exalted version in a brass lunchbox at Gyeongbok Palace—is more fulfilling with beef and a raw egg. Quickly stir it all up with gochujang, smash the mixture against the sides of the bowl in as thin a layer as possible, then wait while it continues to cook. For at least 20 minutes. The longer you wait, the crispier the rice gets. This trick my Korean-American friends taught me the year after college, when they introduced me to Korean food in Manhattan's K-Town. I've carried it around the world with me, including every long-haul layover I've made via Incheon airport.

Raw fish
Raw fish and seaweed "sandwiches" at Jungsik.

I was looking forward to reliving that madeleine memory during this trip but when I got to Incheon, they had renovated the food courts. And the menus. They still had bibimbap, but instead of julienned veggies and ground beef, it was broccoli and capsicums and pea leaves atop Kobe beef slices. Jeez. Even the airport is going nouveau Korean. I was disappointed at the loss of my old comfort food... but I don't get to determine tradition. I had come to eat in Seoul, whether in greasy spoons or at gilded tables, for the same reason Akira Back had come to cook here. As he told me, "I want Koreans to tell me what's Korean."

That's not exactly the mantra of his good friend Jungsik Yim, whose, you know, totally casual eightcourse plus various amuse-bouches and palate cleansers Sunday lunch at his eponymous restaurant in Gangnam turned out to be my last meal in Seoul. "People ask me, 'What are you trying to do? Korean food? Western food?'" he said when he emerged from the kitchen, boyish in a baseball cap but with an attitude and talent that command respect. "Who cares? I cook good food."

Chef Jungsik Yim
Chef Jungsik Yim after a successful Sunday lunch service.

Michelin, which awarded his Manhattan outpost two stars in 2013, agrees. I appreciated the breadth of his menu that seemed to care little for continuity except for in quality. Yim sent out an prettily plated abalone imprinted with grill hashes, like a sirloin steak. The generous portion of North Atlantic lobster in a rich, red pepper sauce to which he'd added a tinge of chili "because it felt boring" was almost southern. He cooked a curlicue-skin Cheju kite filet super light and poached in a flavorful ginger sauce. And you might have seen on Instagram his panna cotta sculptures shaped like the cartoonish Old Grandfather stone statues said to protect Cheju Island.

Old Grandfather
Jungsik's iconic Old Grandfather dessert.

But the dish that stands out most in my memory hews most closely to Korean comfort food: the beef tartare rice bowl, a light take on the yolk-topped beef sashimi people line up around the block for at Gwangjang Market. We had passed on it, but it made me feel like a wimp. (Again.) So I was relieved to be able to check Yim's ethereal version of tartare—with a hint of citrus, and a crunch from sprouts that added texture to the mix's borderline creaminess—off my list at the very last moment. It wasn't traditional, but it was still raw.

 


 

SPEAKEASY, DRINK HARD
TWO MUST-VISIT HIDEY-HOLES INN SEOUL

ALICE
With a down-the-rabbit-hole theme, Alice is hidden in a side alley within a subterranean florist's shop, and the divining required to find it would in New York or London translate to a look-down-your-nose attitude. Not in Seoul. Everyone was all smiles, our waiter seemed utterly delighted at the absurdity of presenting us a cocktail in a 30-centimeter-tall panda cup—though surely it must've been the thousandth time he'd done it—and, as 3 a.m. neared, the bartender started belting out the words to the soundtrack, boogeying together while shaking drinks. It was pretty hard to head back up through the looking glass.

Alice
Behind the bar at Alice.

CHARLES H
In the Four Seasons basement, through what looks like a staff door, you'll find a long, gilded vault that directly channels the Gatsby age. Named after an American author (last name, Baker) who had the good sense to sail off during Prohibition to drink his way around the world, Charles H is a favorite of the city's CEO s and beautiful people. But if you can get a table or, better, seats at the bar, you'll immediately see that a stuffy room of poseurs this is not. I mean, you can't have on your menu three cauldrons of champagne punch that serve 10 people—the Dom Pérignon version clocking in at a rowdy W1.6 million—and take yourself too seriously.

Charles H
Gatsbyera glamour at speakeasy Charles H.

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

HOTELS
Four Seasons Hotel Seoul 97 Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu; +82 2 6388 5000; doubles from W445,000.
Park Hyatt Seoul 202 Teheranro, Gangnam-gu; +82 2 2016 1234;  doubles from W275,000.

RESTAURANTS
Alice 47 Dosan-daero 55-gil, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/511-8420; alicecheongdam.com; from W23,000.
Charles H Four Seasons Hotel; from W23,000.
Dosa 92-12 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; +82 2 516 3672; tasting menus from W120,000.
Friend Chicken 10 Hoenamu-ro 13-gil, Yongsan-gu; banban chicken W13,000.
Gongdeok Market and suljip 19 Mallijae-ro, Mapo-gu.
Gwangjang Market 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu; +82 2 2267 0291.
Gyeongbok Palace Royal Kitchen Experience bibimbap W15,000.
Hanam Pig House 47-5 Hannam-daero 20-gil, Yongsangu; barbecue for two from W65,000.
Jungsik 11 Seolleung-ro 158-gil, Gangnam-gu; +82 2 517 4654; tasting menus from W50,000.
Kioku Four Seasons; meal for two from W150,000.
The Lounge Park Hyatt Seoul; tasting menus from W90,000.
Magpie Brewing Co. 244-1 Noksapyeong-daero, Yongsan-gu; +82 2 749 2703; draft beers from W6,000.

Magpie
Hanging outside Magpie, a craft brew bar in Itaewon.

 

 

See All Articles...

Friend Chicken's offering of the ever-popular chimaek.
  • Gongdeok Market.
  • Overlooking the Blue House and Gyeongbok Palace from the Four Seasons Seoul.
  • Hanging outside Magpie, a craft brew bar in Itaewon.
  • Gatsbyera glamour at speakeasy Charles H.
  • Lunch at Maru, in Four Seasons Seoul.
  • Park Hyatt Seoul's chef Massamiliano Ziano.
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