Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Located just a little bit further up the road from the Mandu Guk restaurant posted earlier today, this restaurant will offer you the chance to try Korean speciality dishes, the likes of which you may have never seen before. Depending on the time of year and the seasonality of local produce, this place prepares authentic specialized dishes to time-honoured recipes.

The space is divided into small seperate dining rooms, each with its own different atmosphere. Floors are smooth wooden boards, with some regular tables and other lower tables at which you can sit on a floor mat and cross your legs. The food is served in very beautiful copper coloured dishes, with gorgeous, simply-designed elegant chopsticks and spoons in the same material (perhaps a copper alloy).

The day that we ate there, the waiter welcomed us at the door. I checked if they were still serving and he told us that they were. As we started to remove our shoes he became a little agitated.

"But you can't eat here," he said.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Foreignors can't eat this food. You won't like it," he explained.
"Oh, it's OK, I live here and I really love Korean food," I told him.
"But we only do one dish today and you don't like," he insisted.
"No, really, it is OK. We like Korean food and we would like to try your dish. How do you know we don't like it if we have never tried it?" I insisted back.
"Well, OK, if you are sure" he said, and ushered us in.

Our dining room had a stunningly-papered ceiling of gold with a delicate pattern of blue and pink flowers. One wall of the room was decorated with colourful panels of plants and animals and sylish plant arrangements grew in pots on the wooden window sills. We sat down and waited to see what would arrive.

Shortly, a very tall Korean man wearing perfectly round, black wire spectacles came in with a tray of small dishes: some pickled radish, a fresh leaf salad with a grapefruit dressing, some marinated peanuts and small potatoes in a mustardy sauce. Then followed another tray of small eats: some seaweed sheets, spicy kimchi and pickled radish and carrot julienne. The table was already laden with things to try when the same man reappeared with a small bowl of tofu soup and the main dish of crab with soy sauce. Ordinarily I would be quite happy to get crab as a main dish, especially fine specimens such as these crabs, which were large with plenty of meat inside the legs.

But the crabs were totally uncooked, cold and raw. Inside the main shell lurked a gelatinous mix of watery crab juice and wobbly orange bits.

"Um, how do we eat this?" asked my friend. The waiter helped to show us by mixing some warm rice into the watery jelly crabby wetness, and then showed her that this was what to do (by this stage my kids were making pretend vomit noises which was quite embarressing). Making sure that we showed no reaction to any of this in order that the kids would think the food completely normal, my friend and I both tried the rice mixture, gingerly selecting a small spoonful and sliding it into our mouths.

In fact, the taste was not bad at all, the soy sauce giving an added saltiness to the delicate, but very cold, crab flavour. However, the meal itself was just too much of a sensory challenge (especially visually), and we had to admit that our advisor had been correct: we just couldn't eat this!

We all ate our rice, and tried all of the smaller dishes. Not being an expert in Korean food I couldn't say how authentic or excellent this food was. However, everything had an extremely interesting taste and was quite different to anything we have sampled before. Mr Young-yong Chan, the president of the restaurant, is also a Court Food Expert and so if you are looking for some off-the-beaten-track Korean fare, bored of Bulgogi and Mandu, then you should try this place. You will only know what you will get when you arrive. If you find that the daily special is too much for you, you can head back down the road and go for some easy tasty noodles or manduguk.

As we left, the waiter explained that this was a special dish that was prepared around this time of year and especially for Chusok. For each person, the cost was 35,000 won. We thanked our charming, friendly advisor for all his help and went in search of a coffee.

Walking up the road away from the Korean Folk Museum and out of town, there is a fabulous selection of restaurants and cafes. Being one of the artier sections of town, this tree-lined road runs alongside one of the great walls of the Gyeong Bok Gung Palace grounds and is dotted with funky boutiques, book cafes, korean restaurants and art galleries.

Jinsun Book Cafe is the first of these that you will come to and as a large garden/terrace section out front. Inside the cafe is full of comfortable sofas and chairs, with books and magazines lining the walls and large windows looking back out into the garden.

The cafe offers some standard pasta and salad dishes for lunch or dinner and a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. We stopped for coffees and ice creams after a rather bizarre lunch experience (involving raw crab and some other unidentified things). Our lattes were great, served in tall glasses with sugar syrup provided to add to tase. The kids had a scoop of ice cream each. Their ices were served complete with an Oreo cookie on the side, colourfully dotted with mini M&Ms and sugar sprinkles which made them very happy.

For two lattes and two scoops of ice cream, the bill came to around 20,000 won. More expensive than a trip to Starbucks, but in a much nicer environment.

when you find one of those restaurants that is consistently good, and turns out a dish that makes your mouth water even when you are just thinking about going there, then you know you are on to a good thing. Ah Nuk Han Pel Jang Mandu restaurant is one of these places. The food here is so tasty, home cooked, perfect in consistency and satisfying. I love it and even though you usually have to queue to get in for a few minutes, recommend that you try it too.

Just outside the entrance to the Korean Folk Museum and Gyeong Bok Dong Palace, there is a pedestrian crossing. Make your way across the road and walk along the road which leads away from the Museum. A couple of small buildings in on the left, you will see this restaurant. It usually has many cars parked outside at lunch time, and is a white building with wooden panelling and large windows on two floors which are covered from the inside with paper blinds.

Inside the restaurant, you will find staff making Mandu (stuffed dumplings) by hand and then arranging the beautifully folded dumplings on floured wooden boards ready to be dropped into the steaming soup bowls for hungry eaters. These are the best mandu we have found in Seoul so far, and the restaurant is busy and lovely. The space is mainly constructed of pale wood, and is airy and light with diners sitting at regular tables (not on the floor). It even smells fresh and is full of Koreans enjoying an excellent lunch of mandu or noodles. Two or three types of Kimchi come with your dish (one spicy and one more vinegary), and the usual soy sauce dips are also given.

A bowl of Mandu Guk (dumplings in soup) will cost about 6,000 won which is average price, and contains 5 dumplings. We ordered two bowls of Mandu guk and a bowl of plain noodles for our kids and the bill was 24,000 won (which included tax and a drink). Great place.

The latest in the Spire Group's interesting range of places to wile the night away, the Embassy Lounge is more of a cool drinking spot than place to eat at night. Good to head there after dinner to enjoy some groovy music, sit comfortably on sofas and chill out with a bottle of wine. If you are feeling lively the small dance floor is usually occupied and bar staff will join you for a saunter during their breaks. The resident DJ will tailor music to your mood if you ask him/her to.

The toilets upstairs are quite beautiful, walls and doors covered in golden scenes of Asian birds and trees.

Staff in the Spire Group establishments are all cheerful and helpful, speaking excellent English and service is always accomodating and thoughtful.

To get to the Embassy Lounge, find the fire station on Itaewon High Street and cross the road heading away from the strip up the hill past Chuwon Antiques. You will see a small car park on your left and the Embassy is upstairs above Arvorig creperie and next to a Korean Hof serving "Traditional tea, porridge and wine" (an interesting combination we thought). Alternatively, if you are in the little street behind the Hamilton Hotel where you will find 3 Alley Pub, Geckos Garden etc, look along to your left and you will see a large purple Embassy Bar sign hanging out into the road and you can head for that.

Without a shred of irony, the Flying Pan is a cool cafe run by two Korean sisters (but we think they get the pun). With brushed concrete floor, fruit and chilled Moet on display in the counter, and jugs of cut flowers for decoration, this airy and pleasant hang-out is a favourite of the Aussie girls for a Friday brunch because of its fresh flavours and authentic western coffee shop fare.

The potato skins with sweet chilli cream cheese make for a good starter to share, and then grilled panini-style sandwiches are delicious and filling. Try the grilled vegetable sandwich for a wholly satisfying lunch, washed down with an excellent Illy coffee latte and you will be set up for a good afternoon.

Lunchtime specials include sandwich and juice for 8,000 won making it pretty reasonable. To find the Flying Pan, look for the Cheil building on Itaewon/Hannam road. Walk up past the entrance to the Cheil building and the Flying Pan has an easy-to-spot sign up on the side of the building in which it is located. Step in off the street and you are there.

Monday, October 09, 2006

ARVORIG PUB AND GRILL (it is actually a Creperie), 123-1 ITAEWON-DONG, YONGSAN TEL: 795 1533

Up the hill oppposite the fire station, just by the small car park on the left hand side is Arvorig which is another of Pascal, the restaurateurs, Spire Group joints. I wonder if this was his first enterprise (must ask him one day). It is small and reasonably charming, with about six tables outside and a few more inside.

Arvorig serves Breton crepes (savoury and sweet), quiches and salads accompanied with cider if you so desire, to complete the authenticity of the Northern French speciality dish.

The crepes are good and made with buckwheat flour so they taste just right. And if you don't fancy one of the 10 or so suggested fillings, you can create your own hybrid combo as you would a pizza.

Staff are fun here, and will look after you although our waiter was quite thrown when he served us with a warm beer. As we asked for a replacement beer that was cold, he offered to serve the Cass (local beer) in a wine cooler to keep it chilled. When we asked just for a cold bottle he admitted that they had only been delivered that day and were therefore all warm. But he happily swapped it for a different brand of beer that was much colder (but still not Brazilian-style cold i.e. estupidamente gelada).

For three crepes, three beers and an Orangina our bill came to 57,000 won.
FRENCH BISTRO LA CIGALE MONTMARTRE, Itaewon contact details to follow

Owned by the quirky Frenchman, Pascal, who runs the Spire restaurant group in Seoul and is also a part time animator, la Cigale is a cafe bistro right on the strip in the middle of Itaewon High Street. Opposite Starbucks coffee house with tables onto the pavement the set up is classic french city bistro.

Its location surely guarantees its success and most nights the tables are full. Mainly seating is outside, but there are also many tables inside where you can get away from the rabble cavorting around on the pavement in front of you.

The service here is quick and there are many white-aproned waiters buzzing about to serve you quickly and get you out ready for the next paying customer. No objections to this - Pascal has got to make a living. But I did object to a goat's cheese salad including luke warm, pre-fried goats cheese and my beers being warmish. Then the accompanying salad had obviously been pre-tossed in salad dressing before the evening and then kept in the fridge. Even my bacon bits were refrigerated. This is not in keeping with the French bistro environment which in my opinion should deliver simple, quick-to-prepare, freshly-made food and was therefore a bit disappointing.

However, the food is not so bad and for a jolly, busy atmopshere the place is good for meeting people in a joint which anyone can find. Price wise it is mid range for Seoul, a main course will set you back around 15,000 won, beers are around 4,000.

Middle eastern cuisine seems to be very popular these days, and after being served a falafel sandwich at the British School family fun day by Mr Masry himself, we decided to check out his restaurant located just off Itaewon. Actually, it is located just off "Hooker Hill" up a side street, turn right at the King Club and you will see it on your right hand side.

This is more cafe than restaurant, but lacks a bit of character and effort. The computer and till sit on an ugly home office console in the middle of the front window and the kitchen is on display but utterly lacking in charm.

The night we went, Mr Masry was not around and so his Korean assistant took our order and went back into the kitchen to prepare the food. It would be good to hide the kitchen in this particular place, because you can see your pita breads going in and out of the microwave, and the tupperware of hummous being grabbed out of the fridge. Open kitchens are great if there is something fun worth watching going on in them, but otherwise keep 'em covered up.

The food is fine, crunchy and fresh, but the portions are on the mean side and come on very small plates with very small cutlery to eat them with. The napkins are tiny and the food is less oven-fired and more greasy-fried, and not great value. If you have been out on the lash, and some middle eastern kebab style grub is what you need then this place is handy. But for quality we will keep going to Marrakech down the road which has better food, nicer atmosphere and at the end you get a smaller bill.

Having left behind our (minimum) once weekly fix of Lebanese cuisine from the awesome Beirut restaurant in Bangkok, imagine our delight to find that the closest restaurant to our house is a Moroccan Arabian Kebab joint offering falafel, baba ganoush and all the trimmings a short saunter down the hill from our place.

Marrakech Night is owned and run by Rhiti Mostafa, together with some of his family (I think his wife perhaps). Formerly the chef for the Morrocan Ambassador in Seoul, Rhiti now serves up fabulous, hot, freshly-made authentic cuisine from this absolutly tiny restaurant with just five tables. Only five tables but approximately 15 smoking hookah machines available for customers to use if they wish.

The walls are draped in North African hangings, topped off with a wobbly line of flashing multicoloured fairy lights and decorated with random tourist souvenirs: ceremonial knives, odd photos and what not. In the corner, on a wall-mounted platform the TV displays either the music channel number, or more interestingly, shows of hugely fat women with died blonde hair and scarily bright make up, energetically belly dancing or rolling around on rugs all the while accompanied by one of those dead pan Arab bands.

The food is fab. About 10 crispy falafel come on a bed of lettuce, which we ordered with baba ghanoush one time, and home made yoghurt the next. Both excellent. The chicken with apricots was supreme - delicately spiced sauce and fat apricots all sizzling in the dish (caution: the apricots remain hot for a very long time...). Quite a short menu but lots of yummy options.

The tables are so close together that the atmosphere is really laid back. You will often get chatting to your neighbours, and if you can reach the beer fridge, you may help yourself and Rhiti will count the bottles of cans at the end of the meal when he is totting up your bill.

We liked this place, and even more when it came in as the only place we have been able to eat our fill, enjoy a few drinks and not spend more than US$50 total bill. highy recommended, but not for posh people who don't like slightly grubby places.

Located at the Banpo Bridge end of Itaewon High Street, on the right as you go up the hill past Pizza Hut. If you stand on the other side of the road outside MacDonalds and look across and up to your left you will see the little yellow sign.