South Korea Travel: Seoul Food

  • A wine rack at the InterContinental Grand Seoul

    A wine rack at the InterContinental Grand Seoul

  • It may look subdued, but Jung Sik Dang serves up some of Seoul’s most vibrant Korean dishes

    It may look subdued, but Jung Sik Dang serves up some of Seoul’s most vibrant Korean dishes

  • the restaurant’s Yim Jung-sik.

    the restaurant’s Yim Jung-sik.

  • Chef Roh Young-hee at Poom.

    Chef Roh Young-hee at Poom.

  • One of Roh’s soups, featuring mallow, dried shrimp, and doenjang soybean paste.

    One of Roh’s soups, featuring mallow, dried shrimp, and doenjang soybean paste.

  • Fried mullet with fresh cilantro and onion in a lemon ponzu sauce, at Star Chef

    Fried mullet with fresh cilantro and onion in a lemon ponzu sauce, at Star Chef

  • Updated Korean dishes at the W Seoul-Walkerhill’s Kitchen restaurant.

    Updated Korean dishes at the W Seoul-Walkerhill’s Kitchen restaurant.

  • Yukhoe tartare and bossam (steamed pork with kimchi).

    Yukhoe tartare and bossam (steamed pork with kimchi).

  • The star chef himself, Kim Hu-nam.

    The star chef himself, Kim Hu-nam.

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Yet Roh also subverts gastronomic tradition, particularly the long-held notion that to some extent, it is quantity that counts. Korean restaurants are typically judged by the amount and diversity of the panchan, or side dishes—pickled vegetables, salads, boiled eggs, and the like—that accompany each meal and can often be replenished free of charge. That practice, Roh believes, encourages waste, and Poom has scrapped it. “In most places, the majority of food ends up thrown out. It’s the duty of chefs like me to redress that,” she explains.

In other establishments, such views might pave the way for meanness. But Poom seems to have it right—practically guaranteeing diners a feast for both the eyes and stomach. Take the gaijimaleenaengchae, a wrap of skinned eggplant stuffed with cucumber, bean sprouts, and mushroom glazed with a vinegar-soy sauce. The jade-hued rolls manage to radiate coolness and delicacy on the plate while packing a hearty, nutty taste and fresh, satisfying crunch. Or Roh’s imajsutang, a creative take on the health tonic soups so beloved in Korea, which distills conventional ingredients like chicken and jujube into a single, gelatin-ensconced cube, barely more than bite-size but with a potent concentration of flavor. Unassuming standards widely available elsewhere in the city, like broiled eel, breaded croaker fillet, and deungshim (char-grilled beef tenderloin), all make appearances on Poom’s seasonally adjusted menu. But they stand out here because of the freshness of the produce and the care taken in bringing them from kitchen to plate. Small wonder, then, that since its debut four years ago, Poom has become the “must go” place in Seoul for foreign visitors and locals alike.

It may look subdued, but Jung Sik Dang serves up some of Seoul’s most vibrant Korean dishes

It may look subdued, but Jung Sik Dang serves up some of Seoul’s most vibrant Korean dishes.

the restaurant’s Yim Jung-sik.

Chef Yim Jung-sik.

Another contender for that status is Jung Sik Dang, a small eatery in Seoul’s posh Apgujeong district that has generated a disproportionately large buzz since opening its doors last year. The name is a play on both the name of the chef and founder, Yim Jung-sik, and the Korean word hanjeongsik, used to describe the elaborate banquets associated with the defunct imperial court. Jung Sik Dang does serve only set menus, but Yim makes it clear that any royal resemblance ends there; in fact, he views the fancy hanjeongsik restaurants government officials are so enamored of as a matter of style over substance. “The food tastes like nothing,” he says.

Certainly nobody could make that accusation at Jun Sik Dang. The restaurant, on a quiet backstreet overlooking the greenery of Dosan Park, is a sanctuary of soft lighting and muted colors, leaving patrons utterly unprepared for the vibrancy of the cuisine that will follow. Like Roh, Yim is a strong advocate of fresh, locally sourced ingredients, though he seems more inclined to experiment with them, a legacy perhaps of his time working in restaurants in New York and Spain. His creations remain very Korean, but ratchet up the taste and visual intensity. “I still see myself as a student,” Yim says with a trademark boyish grin. “When I try to do something new, I just do it. I don’t hesitate.”

Exemplifying Yim’s pull-no-punches approach is his take on sujebi. A simple medley of hand-pulled dough and vegetables in a salty anchovy soup, sujebi is a much-loved local comfort food on wet or chilly days; warm and nourishing, but also somewhat flat and unremarkable. Not so at Jung Sik Dang, where plump, springy noodles rest in a broth colored an almost fluorescent green by crushed chilies. The dish has just the right amount of kick; it’s spicy without being searing, and Yim’s addition of a crumbled bacon garnish takes it from savory squarely into the realm of delectable.

Even bibimbap, a mélange of rice, fresh vegetables, ground beef, and red-pepper paste that is one of the country’s quintessential meals, is not sacred to the young chef. In his version, the rice is tossed with seaweed and sesame oil, then topped with fresh herbs and shiny orange squiggles of meongge, or sea squirt. The latter ingredient, admittedly, is not for everyone: its sluglike appearance and slimy texture means even some Koreans avoid it. Yet it somehow works in this dish, suffusing every spoonful with the briny bite of the ocean. Those put off by the sea squirt may find some solace in dessert. Courtesy of the resident pastry chef, meals are capped with delicacies like green-tea bingsu, a classic summertime ice, or sujeonggwa (cinnamon punch) mousse.

Though his restaurant has been wildly popular since it first appeared on the scene, Yim hesitates to call it a success. “I’ll only be able to say that in five or 10 years,” he laughs.

The star chef himself, Kim Hu-nam.

The star chef himself, Kim Hu-nam.

Fried mullet with fresh cilantro and onion in a lemon ponzu sauce, at Star Chef

Fried mullet with fresh cilantro and onion in a lemon ponzu sauce, at Star Chef.

One doesn’t have to look far to find another of the city’s nouveau Korean establishments. A few subway stops away from Jung Sik Dang, chef Kim Hu-nam opened Star Chef after a lengthy stint in the United States, aiming to fuse his love of Korean cuisine with the techniques he picked up overseas. The restaurant’s nondescript frontage makes it easy to miss. But once guests do enter, they know they’re in for something very different: burnished wood panels and padded benches give it the cozy air of a Midwest American college bar. And Kim—tall, rake-thin, and prone to dressing in bright colors—is an exceptionally convivial host, not to mention a whirlwind in the kitchen. He says he prides himself on being able to know what a customer wants “as soon as I make eye contact.”

Kim’s self-described “gastropub” takes the experimentation seen at Jung Sik Dang a few steps further; indeed, some of the offerings on its eclectic menu are not Korean at all. The true standouts, however, are local at heart, filtered through Kim’s affection for pan-Asian spices and American serving norms (especially when it comes to the portions, which are enormous, practically spilling off the plate). “I don’t like the French style of cuisine, where there’s something tiny and beautiful on a platter,” he says. “I like to make big quantities. Why? Because I eat a lot!” His menu is therefore conducive to sharing, which contributes to the Star Chef’s chummy, unpretentious atmosphere.

None of this is to imply that Kim skimps on quality. Dishes here vary according to whatever happens to be available at the market each day. Kim also relies on produce from his own farm outside Seoul. These are put to good use in imaginative hybrids like the “XO samgyeopsal,” which takes a very working-class indulgence —grilled pork belly—and livens it with a sweet but still fiery chili sauce and lashings of cilantro. The meat is so tender it verges on buttery. It’s accompanied, of course, as it would be in the thousands of less whimsical Korean restaurants across the city, by a heaping pile of tart kimchi, the country’s venerated pickled cabbage.

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