What comes to mind when you contemplate Korean food? Barbecued meats? Kimchi? Fiery hot, strongly flavoured, garlicky dishes?
Korean cuisine is that, but it’s also so much more, as a weekend in Seoul proved. There’s high-end dining – we tried three places that are on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 list – but we also visited small shops that have been around for decades. And all that without a single dish of Korean barbecue. With the first Michelin guide to dining in the South Korean capital being launched on November 7, now is a good time for a visit.
WATCH: Susan Jung is served a dish of “live octopus” (Clue: it’s not alive)
If you want one place that will completely change your perception of Korean cuisine, it’s La Yeon at the Shilla hotel. It comes in at #50 on the best 50 list, and the traditional haute cuisine dishes by chef Kim Sung Il are delicate, refined and subtle – adjectives not frequently used with Korean food. If you’re wondering about the lack of chilli in the dishes, remember that historians believe the spice was only introduced to the country by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
Dinner here might include an appetising “platter of nine delicacies” – very finely sliced beef and seven Korean vegetables (the selection of which changes seasonally) that you wrap in thin, light crepes; and a wobbly poached “blue shell egg” in dried pollack broth, topped with gochugaru (chilli flakes) and dried fish. Royal hot pot is subtle and complex, including beef, mushroom, egg, root vegetables, ginkgo, meatballs, red dates and abalone.
Chargrilled Korean beef sirloin (top quality, graded 1++) is some of the best beef I’ve ever tasted, with a deep, rich flavour, but without feeling too fatty on the tongue. It’s balanced by a refreshing apple kimchi. The savoury courses end with more beef, and because we can’t decide between the beef ribs broth with abalone or the mixed rice with vegetables and Korean beef tartare, we have both. The clear broth with tender cubes of beef is fantastic, as is the beef tartare which is, by far, the best bibimbap I’ve ever had.
23/F, The Shilla Seoul, 249, Dongho-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul 100-856, tel: +82 (0)2 2230 3367. Lunch 98,000 won (HK$664) to 170,000 won. Two dinner menus available: Yeon The Feast at 150,000 won, and Shilla at 230,000 won
Jungsik restaurant (#22 on the list), named after chef and proprietor Yim Jung Sik, is the opposite of La Yeon. While chef Kim is the traditionalist, Yim is modernist, serving “new Korean fine dining” that’s made the jump from Gangnam to the US – the branch in New York has two Michelin stars.
The Signature tasting menu includes sea urchin bibimbap – a generous portion of uni with seaweed purée, fried millet, kimchi and lettuce; and “OK Dom” – amadai from Jeju Island that’s steamed, then topped with the fish’s crunchy scales. Kalbi beef is marinated with soy sauce, sugar and pineapple before being seared and served with buckwheat paper and mushrooms pan-fried with truffle.
11, Seolleung-ro, 158-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, tel: +82 (0)2 517 4654. Lunch 40,000-150,000 won. Dinner: four courses 90,000 won, five courses 120,000 won, nine-course signature menu 180,000 won
Kang Mingoo, chef-patron of Mingles (#15 on the list) has risen through the ranks quickly: just five years before he opened his restaurant in 2014, he was an apprentice at Restaurante Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian, Spain. The menu has an interesting guide – coloured dots by each dish indicate what “tastes” the dishes are flavoured with: fermented vinegar, ganjang (soy sauce), gochujang (chilli paste), doenjang (fermented soybean paste) or herbs and spices.
The lunch menu gives the diner choices for almost every course. Seafood carpaccio with grated bottarga is light, and served with a salad of 12 types of foraged herbs. The diner lifts the lid from a small dish to reveal a smooth foie gras torchon with grated foie gras powder. The dish called “umami noodle” is lovely: the capellini is tossed with squid ink and seaweed mixed with doenjang, then topped with sea urchin, lobster and pickled onions, while fried sea bass – with a batter made with sparkling makgeolli (Korean rice wine) – comes with a tangy house-made banana vinegar.
94-9, Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, tel: +82 (0)2 515 7306. Lunch 55,000 won, dinner 110,000 won
The one advantage of taking the Cathay Pacific red-eye flight to Incheon International Airport is that with a 5.15am arrival, it leaves you plenty of time for breakfast. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we headed straight to Bugeogukjip, a restaurant that’s been around since 1968. There’s only one dish served here: bugeoguk – a cloudy broth made with long-simmered dried pollack. Bean curd and egg are added, the soup is ladled into large metal bowls then served with all-you-can-eat rice and banchan. Bugeoguk is often eaten as a hangover cure, and it’s also the perfect light, soothing dish for early morning travellers.
38, Eulji-ro 1-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul, tel: +82 (0)2 777 3891. 7,000 won
This place is heaven for lovers of fatty pork. Although they serve a few other dishes – namely cold noodles – diners are here for jokbal: skin-on pork hocks that have been marinated, then braised for hours so the meat is tender and succulent. Served with gochujang, salted shrimp sauce, raw garlic and chillies, the sliced pork is eaten as ssam – wrapped in lettuce leaves with the diner’s choice of condiments. Simply fantastic.
62-16, Jangchung-dong, 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, tel: +82 (0)2 2279 9759. 30,000-50,000 won (depending on the size of the pork hock)
Pro Ganjang Gejang
As with Pyeongando Jokbaljip, Pro Ganjang Gejang does have other dishes on the menu, but they’re easy enough to ignore. People come here for the raw crab, either marinated in soy sauce or chilli sauce. The former gives a purer flavour – the better to taste the plentiful, oozing, bright orange roe. The roe is sticky and delicious, although not something you’d want to brag about to your cardiologist. Don’t forget to order a bowl of rice, to help you get the last bits of roe from the shell.
9, Gangnam-daero 97-gil, Seocho-gu, Seoul, tel: +82 (0)2 543 4126. Raw crabs are 62,000-88,000 won (depending on size and seasonings)
Leave enough time in your busy Seoul schedule to spend a few hours at Gwangjang Market. It’s a great place to pick up Korean cooking tools and edible souvenirs, such as dried fruit (the persimmons are excellent), salted and dried seafood and packets of flavoured seaweed. You can also stop for snacks such as bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), which are sold inexpensively at many shops for immediate consumption (on crowded benches) or to take away. We went to the very popular shop called Soon-hee Ne.
And if you’re brave, try the sannakji – so-called “live octopus”. When a customer orders it, the octopus is taken out of the fish tank, dispatched, then cut into small pieces before being served with a sesame oil and salt dipping sauce. The octopus’ motor neurons cause the tentacles to continue to writhe, as if it were still alive.
88, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul