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Monday, April 13, 2015

Best Restaurants in Seoul - My Top 5 Picks

Thanks to a recent long holiday weekend, I managed - finally - to make it to Seoul, South Korea.  For the very first time.  Now maybe it's because of that short period in my life when I binged on weepy Korean serials (hey, didn't everyone?) and the fact that kimchi, bulgogi and bibimbap are now ubiquitous in everyone's foodie lexicon, the city of over 10 million people felt somewhat familiar even to a first-timer like me.  With only 72 hours to spend, I armed myself with helpful tips and scribbled directions from friends, a functioning GPS app, a centrally located Airbnb apartment, sturdy walking shoes, and plenty of appetites to spare.

So in the true spirit of pay-it-forward-ness, here are my selections for the top five restaurants you should hit the next time you are in this historic, sprawled-out capital.

Opening hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily.
5 Jahamun-ro 5 Gil, Jogno-gu, Seoul.
Telephone +82 2 7377444
Two words: Ginseng chicken.
I've read that there's a recent trend towards broth-based cuisine in the U.S. but this is one area where the Koreans are already ahead of the game.  When I walked into this famed restaurant, basically looking at the menu was moot.  The only thing to order is the restaurant's namesake: Tosokchon samgyetang, which is a whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice and boiled in a broth consisting of Korean ginseng, ginko nuts, chestnut, black sesame, garlic, jujube ginger and a potent mix of medicinal herbs and grains. Each diner is given a capsule of dried ginseng as a condiment.  Loosely translated, samgyetang essentially means chicken ginseng soup in Korean and its alleged health benefits include the boosting of one's metabolism, detoxification of the body, improving the digestive and respiratory system, and the reduction of stress. Not a bad trade-off for the price of one tasty bowl of soup (15,000 won / USD13.50)
My order of tosokchon samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) complete with my generous dollop of Korean ginseng as a garnish.  It's a huge serving so you might want to consider sharing.
Slightly more hardcore is the ogolgye samgyetang, which is the same dish as the one above, but cooked with a black-skinned chicken or the silkie fowl.  According to its website, the restaurant swears that this dish's positive health benefits include the "clearing of blood, preventing wind strengthening stamina" and helping with blood circulation.
Tosokchon Ogolgye Samgyetang (with black-skinned chicken)
Other popular dishes that I witnessed flying out of the kitchen on a rapid and frequent basis include haemul paejeon - the seafood and green onion pancake and jeongigui tongdak which is a whole roasted chicken.  I would've ordered them if I wasn't close to bursting with all that ginseng chicken-stuffed-in-glutinous rice in soup.  Oh and by the way, the restaurant generously gave us diners complimentary shots of ginseng wine which should have come with a warning label as it packed a potent punch.

Note: There's generally a line for this restaurant during meal times, but we lucked out by getting there before 7 p.m. and got a table immediately.   The neighbourhood is quite eclectic....a mix of gentrification and old-school local businesses.  It's great to wander about and explore especially after a heavy full-on ginseng dinner.

265-8 Jongno 5-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Telephone +82-2266-8249

Ok, full disclosure: I was actually looking for another dakhanmari (literal translation for "one whole chicken" in Korean) restaurant when I came across Myeongdong Dakhanmari along this busy, narrow Sangsaemon alleyway filled with grilled seafood restaurants and wet market stalls.   Part of my confusion lay in the fact that there are similar establishments a few doors from each other, all of which proclaim they are the "original chicken restaurant."  At any rate, I'm super glad I stepped in Myeongdong as I had one of the best meal experiences in all possible definitions of the term.
So here's the thing.  No one speaks English in the restaurant.  Unless you read, write and speak Korean, there's no need to look at the menu or gesture what you want to order.  Your food - the raw chicken, soup base, condiments and noodles - will just be set in front of you within seconds of being seated, unbidden, as apparently, there's only one thing worth eating there.
Before the broth in the hotpot has even started boiling, the server has deftly cut our whole chicken into manageable (but still large-ish) pieces using only a pair of tongs and scissors.  In 20 seconds, she was done, and we were left to our own devices to wait for the pot to cook all the potential salmonella away.
In the meantime, we amused ourselves by creating our own dipping sauce with the heady mixture of chili paste, chives, minced garlic and soy sauce.

Then we got down to business when the soup reached its boiling point and we added wheat noodles to the mix.  With the leeks, mushroom, rice sticks and potatoes already in the broth, it made for one flavourful meal - perfect to chase away the winter chill and get the sinuses going on overdrive.
As I'd mentioned before, there are other dakhanmari restaurants down the same street, but I'd recommend this one over the other, more touristy (read: unpleasantly packed like sardines,) ones that pretty much serve the same thing.

743-1 Hannam Dong, Yongsan Gu, Seoul
Telephone +82 2 792 2022

This was another accidental find after ambling down the street about 100 meters away from the fascinating Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in the trendy, expat-friendly neighbourhood of Hannam Dong.  The museum had just closed for the day, and this restaurant was just opening its doors for the dinner crowd.  That was good timing for we had no reservations and snagged the first seating with our walk-in. 
Unlike our other dining spots till then, this was no grungy hole-in-the-wall staffed with non-English speaking staff.  Set on the ground floor of a house (the basement features an alfresco bar that's not related to Parc,) the interiors are warm, cozy and the servers friendly. The seasonal menu is decidedly home-style Korean with a cosmopolitan dash as that's the inspiration of owners Pak Mogua and Oo Zeemin when they opened Parc two years ago based on the former's mom's recipes.
The restaurant's emphasis is on using only fresh and local ingredients, and the tasty plates are meant for sharing.  There are free refills for some of the sides, which wasn't really necessary as the portions were ample.
We ordered the smaller portions of the spicy stir-fried Korean pork fillets garnished with onions, and the grilled whole Blackrock fish, both of which came with soup, black rice (heuk mi ssal) and three sides.  Oh and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon as well.  For digestive reasons, of course.
That's the very residential Parc on the right side of the photo.

Mapo Gu, Gongdeuk-Dong 255-5, Seoul
Telephone +82 2719 9292

Throw a won at any direction in Seoul, and chances are it will land on a galbi restaurant.  There is absolutely no shortage of places where you can find grilled marinated pork or beef, but one restaurant claims vociferously to be the pioneer and inventor of this now-ubiquitous dish that is sometimes  known generically as Korean BBQ.  So much so that the owner of Choidepo has determinedly added both the terms wonjo (meaning "original") and jinjja ("real") to its name to differentiate itself from the alleged copycats.  Well, seeing that those terms are also on some of its competitors' signboards, I wish him lots of luck with that naming strategy.
Set in the mish-mash neighbourhood of Gongdeuk, the restaurant which has been around since 1956 was a bit of a challenge to find only because the entrance is on a side street even though there's a store front on the main street (but which has no door.)  It's a bit of a hodge-podge space once inside as it seems to inhabit various stores that may have sold out and given way to this popular eatery. Or maybe it just looked that way to me.
The first thing that greeted us in this cavernous space was the long self-serve condiments counter. Kinda like a Korean version of the Sizzler salad bar.  Apparently, there's no shortage of kimchi, assorted pickled radish and fresh vegetables you can consume with your dweji galbi (pork marinated in soy sauce) in one sitting.

That brings me to the star of the show, Choidepo's raison d'etre : those sweet, slightly fatty pork ribs doused in Choidepo's secret sauce.  Every table is outfitted with at least one gas-fired grill that is very considerately changed on a regular basis throughout your meal so you don't have to keep eating charred carcinogenic bits with each fresh grilling of your galbi

Just so we had a bit of variety for our palates, we ordered two types of noodles: one was with a half-boiled egg on top of kimchi and buckwheat noodles in icy cold broth (top: photo,) and the other was on the tart side, with pickled radish and perilla leaves, served a little spicy.
Finally, it was a toss-up whether to partake in a grilled BBQ dinner with the more traditional selection of beer, but I opted instead to try bokbunjajoo, a local fruit wine made from black raspberries (alcohol content 15%.) Also excellent for digestion, I'm guessing.  And general merriment, of course.

Telephone +82 2 725 4474

Firstly, let me apologize for listing the name of this next restaurant only in Korean.  The simple fact is that I don't know what it is in English.  Lord knows I've poked around but the restaurant's name in all its marketing materials (signboards, standees, business cards, menus, website) is all in Korean, and the best I could do is link the above address to Google Map in hopes that you can find it, and so can I.  Because I definitely want to go back there again.
The restaurant is located on a side street within the heart of Insadong, known for its traditional craft shops, art galleries and cultural souvenirs.  The main specialty of this restaurant is jjimdak or braised chicken (photo, above.)  It's a close relation to the adobo of the Philippines with its generous chunks of chicken, potatoes, carrots and dollops of glass noodles simmering in thick, savoury and slightly sweet gravy.  My two dinner companions and I ordered the smaller of the two sizes, but still we struggled to make even a sizable dent in the huge platter that was served to us.
We had also ordered the restaurant's other specialty: another huge tray (also the smaller of the two menu options) of steamed pork belly with a side of freshly shucked oysters (they're not always in season so we had to initially ask if they were available.)  These came with an assortment of raw lettuce leaves, pickles, spicy marinations, finely sliced garlic and hot green peppers - all of which serve as a crunchy complement to the cold pork and oysters.  If we had known in advance how large the portions would be and how relatively puny our appetites were in comparison, we'd have stopped there and not ambitiously ordered the pajeon or Korean-style pancake which, in keeping with the overabundance theme of the evening - was served as a duo.  Rest assured, the next time we step through its doorway, we will be more than ready for the onslaught of the hearty protein- and carb-rich platters we could barely finish that first evening.  And glamour be damned, we will be in stretchy pants. 

137, Seobinggo-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Closed on Mondays

This is a bonus addition to my top 5 eating spots in Seoul.  Although I don't think foodies will storm this cafe in droves but if you happen to be visiting the National Museum of Korea - the largest in South Korea with an impressive exhibition on Buddhist art - then definitely make it a point to stop there (and not at the dreary food court, please) for a culinary respite.  Large, modern and airy with floor to ceiling windows on both sides overlooking the museum's harmoniously landscaped gardens and water features, the cafe seemed to be a favourite with middle-aged women chatting animatedly over coffee and cake.  Well, that was on the day I was there, at least.  In terms of the menu, the cafe has a small-ish selection of appetizers, mains and dessert, all of which were Western-oriented.  I was very happy with my choice of the classic linguine vongole that was inexplicably but tastefully garnished with fresh bean sprouts.   
The green salad with pomegranate and olives (plus those bean sprouts again) was refreshing, and we finished off our snack (for that's what all these dishes represented -not a real meal but a filler of sorts) with a dense and intense chocolate tart. 
This museum cafe turned out to be quite a surprising and much appreciated cultural and gastronomic excursion which, coincidentally, neatly sums up our first, but definitely not our last by a long shot, visit to Seoul.

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