Features

Seoul food

1 Jun 2005 by business traveller

Italian, Indian, American, fusion — it's all available in the South Korean capital. Margie T Logarta follows her appetite.

When it comes to the cuisine capitals of Asia, Seoul isn't often mentioned in the same breath as Bangkok, Singapore, Penang, Kuala Lumpur or even next-door neighbour Tokyo.
That could be everyone's loss. Those in the know, such as my good friend Nick who lives there, rave over the range of restaurants, both international and Korean, as well as the quality of the food. Coming from a Hong Kong resident and a hotelier, that's high praise indeed.
So, during a recent weekend in Seoul, having previously visited the obligatory attractions of Kyongbokkung Palace, Seoul Tower and the National Museum, and combed the shopping nooks of Insadong, Itaewon, Namdaemun and Tongdaemun, I decided to explore with my appetite.
Mind you, I could happily have stayed with my usual bulgogi or kalbi, both traditional Korean meat dishes, with steamed rice and kimchi. But although that would have been eating the Seoul way, it wouldn't necessarily have been doing as the Seoulites do – and that's dining out.
There are difficulties, though. English fluency is still scarce, and Korean calligraphy unfathomable to most visitors, so it's a little risky to simply walk in off the street and place an order. Getting there can also be a problem. Finding the right address in Seoul is unlike in the West with its orderly streets and clearly identifiable buildings. Korean locations are based on blocks, and even within these, streets (which are more like lanes and alleys) do not always run in a logical fashion.
If you are staying in a hotel it is a good idea to make use of the concierge and ask them to call the establishment and book a table for you, as well as to take down instructions on how to reach it. Having a phone number is vital because even if the cabbie reaches the area, he may not know the exact street. It's no skin off his nose to call up the restaurant for a little more direction, and the vast majority of Koreans carry a (Samsung) mobile phone.
Once, the driver dropped me somewhere I thought was close to the restaurant. When I found that wasn't the case, I asked several passers-by for help, but their English failed them. I finally entered a design atelier where one of the managers put me on the right path – via hand signals. When you do arrive, in most places the staff will try to air their English, or, if not, at least proudly present you with an English menu, should there be one.
Start where it's hot, and the place (for now at least) is Gangnam-gu (meaning south of the River Hangang that divides Seoul). Just remember the bell-sounding Cheongdam-dong and Apgujeong-dong, which is where there is the greatest concentration of restaurants, cafés, clubs and bars, including those specifically serving the highly potent local libation soju. For jazz aficionados, the iconic Once in a Blue Moon is also in Cheongdam-dong.
Be warned that Seoul is not cheap. But most of the time, you get your money's worth, and the service is exemplary as Korean customers harbour high expectations, having travelled so much, particularly to Europe. In fact, the proliferation of French and Italian restaurants is a testimony to their enduring fascination with these two cultures.
After four days of planned eating, I no longer had the stomach space to wander across to Kangbuk-gu (north of the river, also known as downtown Seoul), where there is known to be another critical mass of watering holes and eateries. Let's leave that for another weekend, and another article.

Il Cipriani
62-12 Nonhyn-dong, Gangnam-gu
tel +82 2 540 4646
You have to enter a Starbucks to get to this conservatory-like trattoria on the mezzanine floor. The wine list is amazing, showing labels from all parts of the world, including Portugal and South Africa. They serve a truly memorable walnut bread, baked in the brick oven that dominates the kitchen. When reserving, ask for a table by the French windows that look out to the bright lights of Gangnam-gu.
Price Dinner for two with wine from 88,000 won (£47.50).
Opening hours 12pm-3pm for lunch, 4pm-9pm for dinner.

Ganga

B1 StarTower, 737 Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu
tel +82 2112 2967
This outlet, belonging to a chain of Indian restaurants, has a real Indian chef in the kitchen (I peeked). Lunch menus are available, with items such as special Punjabi tikka and chicken tangri kabab, while dinner menus feature items such as tandoor chicken and a Ganga special curry. My tomato saar boasted a lovely creamy consistency and whetted my appetite for the delicately spiced tandoor king prawns which I demolished without stopping. (There were only five anyway). For dessert, I recommend the homade yoghurt and fresh mango puree with saffron.
Price Lunch menus start at 50,000 won (£27) and dinner menus at 65,000 won (£35).
Opening hours 11.30am-3pm for lunch, 3pm-5.30pm for high tea, 5.30pm-9pm for dinner.

Manhattan Grill  at the Renaissance Seoul Hotel
676 Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam
tel +82 2 222 8637
If I wanted to impress an important client or treat a local business partner, Manhattan Grill would certainly be high on my list of venues. The cognac-coloured interiors and high-backed leather chairs in navy make the perfect backdrop for small, high-level discussions or select lunch or dinner meetings. For more exclusivity, there are two private
and two semi-private dining rooms. And the excellent steaks here are another attraction – the tenderloin I ordered, brought to me on a charming "bull plate", was crunchy to the
taste and ran with succulent juices.
Price Set lunch and dinner menus are available from 38,000 won (£20.5) while dinner for two with wine is from 230,000 (£124).
Opening hours Daily at 12pm-2.30pm for lunch, 6pm-10pm for dinner.

Restoyaki Chungdam Ann
118-19 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu
tel +82 2 541 6381
I didn't visit this one, but it comes highly recommended. A member of a chain of four restaurants, all in Gangnam-gu, the cuisine here is best described as fusion. It's reportedly one of the area's most happening spots, especially after dinner and on weekends.
Price Dinner for two will cost from 90,000 won (£49).
Opening hours 6pm to 4am.

Tani Nomadic Bistro
1F Komo B/D, 116-3, Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu
tel +82 2 3446 9982
Japanese fusion at its best. The soft-shell crab is a dish to die for – I wish I had placed a second order. A few of the staff speak passable English, which helped, and the clever interior design creates several nooks for small to large groups of diners in what is actually not a big space. Choose a table by the large glass door-windows facing a small garden. This gives you something refreshing to look at while waiting for your order to arrive.
Price Dinner for two from around 140,000 won (£75.60).
Opening hours From 12pm-3pm for lunch, 6pm-2am for dinner and drinks.

Yongsusan
6 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu
tel +82 2 546 0647
The cuisine here is supposed to have been served at the imperial court. There are about six dinner options, consisting of several courses, served individually, and one lunch option. It's suitable for a first-time visitor to Seoul and interesting as a cultural lesson, but not really a repeat experience.
Price Dinner set for one person from 31,000 won (£16.70) to 98,000 won (£53).
Opening hours 12pm-3pm for lunch, 6pm-10pm for dinner.

AT INCHEON INTERNATIONAL

"8"at Hyatt Regency Incheon
2850-1 Woonseo-dong, Jung-gu, Incheon
tel +82 32 745 1234
The "8" comes from eight distinctive restaurants in one location. Sit in one section and order your way round the restaurant. The line-up includes Café, a French-inspired bistro, Cucina, an Italian trattoria, the Deli gourmet shop, a dessert kitchen, a noodle place for Korean, Chinese or Japanese, plus dumplings and home-roasted duck and port, a sushi bar and a western and yakitori grill.
Price Dinner for two with wine from around £55.
Opening hours 6.30am-midnight daily ¦

Drinking games
Funny, how some cultures dictate one form of behaviour during the day and another after 6pm.
In Seoul, for instance, it's fine if you end the night by staggering back to the train station or the hotel. There's no shame in not being able to hold your liquor.
Recently, I met a local executive who was high up in his company's hierarchy. Throughout the meeting, he was thoroughly proper and professional. Later, I went with him and his staff for a sumptuous Korean meal, and as it happens at such outings, the alcohol began to flow. My new friend lost all inhibitions, and goggled and guffawed as he spilled liquor on himself and his seatmates. No one minded. A good time was had by all. So if you aim to impress your Korean partners, it helps to get into the spirit. And here are some popular
ways of joining in...
The Bomb: Down a shot of whisky followed by a mug of beer, then dump the whisky glass in the mug and hold it over your head and shake it so make a "kling-kling" sound, which announces to one and all that you've managed to finish the two.
Cyclone: Pour whisky and beer into a glass and cover it with a napkin. Then place your palm on the top of the glass, gripping it tightly and shaking it violently, causing a mini-cyclone. Not recommended if you are unsteady by now, lest the glass slips and shatters.
Golf: Set two chopsticks on a beer mug and place a whisky glass on top of them. Then with another pair of chopsticks, practise your golf swing on the chopsticks, hoping you can — if you're still steady — tip the whisky glass into the beer.

Hot, hot, Hot
Koreans are extraordinarily loyal to their cuisine, even fast food. Still going strong after 40 years is the restaurant chain Won Halmoney-Bossam (Grandmother Won), whose specialty is the traditional kimchi-boiled pork (bossam) combo, served with lettuce and spices. Legend has it that a noble family in the Chosun Dynasty allowed their servants
to add meat to the winter kimchi to show appreciation for their labours.
Franchising dozens of eateries across South Korea, the chain claims 40 per cent market share of the restaurant chain business (Lotteria of the Lotte group takes up the rest).
Meals come in different sets, priced from 19,000 won (£10.35) to 36,000 won (£20).
For the truly intrepid, "fire chicken" is an adventure not to be missed. Requiring a tongue of steel, the dish seems to be more chilli than meat, but it's one that will surely send spice lovers to heavenly heights (tel +82 2 337 9990).

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