Tuesday, October 10, 2006

CHEONNYUNKIDUNG KEUNKIWAZIP TRADITIONAL KOREAN FOOD RESTAURANT, 123 SOGYOUK-DONG, JONGRO-GU, SEOUL TEL: 02 722 9024

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.

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Sarah said...

Pickled raw crabs are sometimes served as side dishes (really small crabs usually) at restaurants.In Korean it is "kae jang" (picked crabs).

Judging by the poor (and kind of offensive) reaction of your children to the crab dish,and your comments on it, I guess the waiter was right - probably other foreigners who'd eaten there had showed a similar bad reaction so that's why he insisted so strongly that you wouldn't like it. Just because you're familiar with a lot of common everyday Korean dishes, you can't really generalize and say that you'll like an unknown, never-tried Korean dish. Sometimes it's a good idea to go with restaurant staff's recommendations...