soju sunrise

Review: Samarkand Uzbek Restaurant

restaurants | January 30, 2014 | By

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For many Seoul residents – Korean and expat alike – it is often a surprise to learn that there is a foreign enclave in the very heart of the city where the shop fronts and signs lose the familiar right angles of hangeul and take on the unexpected shapes of Cyrillic. The area around Dongdaemun is a warren of Russian, Uzbek and Kazakh shops, importers, cafes and restaurants, and a trip to eat here makes a refreshing change from the usual rota of galbi, bibimbap and burgers.

Samarkand is a small Uzbek restaurant near Dongdaemun History and Culture Park subway station (the stop formerly known as Dongdaemun Stadium, for old-timers). Like many such eateries in this area, it's a fairly modest sort of place; don't go taking that Apgujeong girl you've been lying to about your financial wherewithal, there are no poodles in handbags here. This is a place for some serious eating, though.

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Uzbek food shares much of its DNA with Russian food, and if you've eaten Russian food you'll find many familiar staples here, with borscht, carrot salad, stuffed cabbage (above) and pelmeni dumplings all in evidence.

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Oh, that's right, and vodka as well. Our bottle cost W25,000, and that was the most expensive option we were offered; there were cheaper ones. They also have Baltika beers including the pilsner-like Baltika 7 and the lethal No.9, which is basically like a Korean so-mek in a can.

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The food was definitely a success with our mixed group of Korean and foreign diners, most of whom had little experience with Russian or Central Asian cuisine. Particular hits were the golubtsy stuffed cabbage (stuffed with meat), the pelmeni (stuffed with meat) and the samsa, big puff pastry triangles stuffed with – well, you can guess. There was also a nice dish called plov – practically the national dish of Uzbekistan, so I am told (a variation on the more familiar word pilaf) which consisted of more chunks of soft meat on a bed of lightly flavoured rice. The borscht was less well-received, and the general feeling about the shiz-biz – french fries topped with fried lamb pieces – was that the heavy, chewy meat added very little to the overall dish.

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The star of the show is the shaslik (above), massive kebabs on metal skewers which go for around 4000 won each. Both lamb and chicken (and others) are available. Both were terrific, lightly charred on the outside and juicy on the inside and topped with very more-ish slices of raw onion. After a selection of other dishes, one per head will be plenty, which is just as well since the guy brought our table of six people only one per head, despite our repeated requests for ten.

The menu is in Russian and Korea, with no English so far as I can see. There are pictures of each dish, though, which will help a bit, and I've listed the Cyrillic words for selected menu items at the bottom to help a bit more. There will be much pointing and gesticulation.

The food at Samarkand is tasty and reasonably priced. As with most foreign restaurants in Seoul, the costs can definitely mount up if you eat and drink copiously. When I've eaten here in a group, the bill has generally come to around 25-30,000 won per head, but well over 10,000 of that is usually down to the beer and vodka. If you're not a fat alcoholic like me, you could easily eat here for 15,000 won or less.

  • Category: Uzbek / Russian
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Lamb or chicken shaslik kebab (шашлык), pelmeni dumplings (пельме́ни), stuffed cabbage (голубцы), and plov (Плов) – not to confused with beer (пиво)!
  • Subway: Dongdaemun History and Culture Park exit 5
  • Directions: Samarkand is a little tricky to find. Come out of Exit 5 of Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station and walk across the road past the Paris Baguette, with the Woori Bank on your left. Past a large-ish Korean restaurant, you turn down the first alleyway on your right with the big Russian deli on the corner. Samarkand is the cafe with the big orange sign about 50 feet down the alleyway on the right. If the first place is full, they have a second location a few steps further on the left – both are the same restaurant, with the same menu, serving food from the same kitchen.

samarkand map

 

Buying wine in Korea

food and drink shopping | January 28, 2014 | By

Korea is not fertile soil for a wine lover with shallow pockets. The double whammy of distance and taxes make even the cheapest of plonk into a relatively expensive proposition, and paying for decent quality will cost you.

"17,000 for Kangaroo Ridge?"

“17,000 for Kangaroo Ridge?”

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that wine has historically been seen as a premium product here, and a large part of wine’s appeal to Korean consumers lies in its status as a luxury good, so there has been little incentive for retailers to cut prices in the way they do in the US or UK.

All that said, things are definitely changing. Korean supermarkets, in particular, are beginning to expand their ranges of wines (and beers) significantly compared to even a couple of years ago, and even the availability of decent white wines – which used to be utterly appalling, unless you enjoyed shitty Italian moscato with more sugar in it than alcohol – is improving in leaps and bounds.

It would be stretching things to say that there are bargains available; if you Google that bottle of Californian red you just bought in Homeplus, you may just cry when you see how much it costs back home. There are occasional surprises to be found, though. But, broadly speaking, if you were a wine drinker back home and you want to continue the habit in Korea, you have to choose; either you splash out twice as much for that weekly bottle of Cabernet than you would ever have done in your previous life, or – well, soju is nice and cheap, isn’t it?

I don’t have especially deep pockets, but one of my resolutions for 2014 was to stop buying crappy wine for 12,000 won a bottle and then bitching when it turned out to taste like grape juice that had been strained through a kangaroo’s arsehole. That sometime means paying 20,000 or 30,000 a pop, and it’s not much fun when you shell out that much for a wine which is disappointing.

So on this blog I plan to share some of the better glasses I’ve enjoyed, along with details of prices and locations, so that the next time you go into E-Mart you don’t come back with something that’s fit only for the cat. Not that I would give wine to a cat. Except maybe moscato.

Review: Brooklyn Burger – the best burger in Seoul

restaurants | January 26, 2014 | By

“Best burger in Seoul” must be one of the most Googled phrases among foreigners in this fair city. Now, let’s start by admitting up front that burgers, like pizza, coffee, music and girlfriends, are deeply personal experiences, and we all have our favourites. Some people like them dripping with chili, others like it with a huge slab of tomato on the base. Some folks eat them with fork and knife; I always eat the fries first and save the burger until last. I knew a guy once who would swear that the best burger in Christendom was one of those Australian affairs with beetroot and God only knows what else on it, the very thought of which made me want to puke. So your mileage may vary, and indeed I’d be suspicious if it didn’t.

All that having been said, I’m calling it. Brooklyn the Burger Joint makes the best burger in Seoul.

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The first clue is the wait. If you go to either of their restaurants at any time around lunch or dinner – and I mean even vaguely near those mealtimes, not just the noontime lunch rush – you’ll probably have to queue. Neither location is very big, a couple of dozen seats at the most. You’ll put your name down on a list at the door and then wait, patiently, in the freezing cold or the sweltering humidity, whatever. Be patient and wait. You may peer inside and note to your consternation that the place appears to be filled with Gangnam ladies-who-lunch, and if you’re anything like me you’ll take that as a sign that the food must be over-hyped, or over-priced, or both, and you’ll start to walk away. Do not walk away. Hold firm. Stay in line.

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Once inside the promised land, you’ll get a big menu with English on one side.

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All of the burgers come in regular and larger sizes. Even the regular one is a decent handful, but larger customers (like me) will want the larger of the two. All burgers are available as a meal set with an order of chips and a soft drink for an extra 5,000 won.

If you’re here in company, though, you should get the sharing fries. The chilli cheese fries are extremely good. If they’re not hot enough for you, Brooklyn has a whole bunch of hot sauces on hand that you can shake onto the chips.

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Recommending a favourite burger is as pointless as picking a favourite girl from SNSD; they’re all equally tasty. The patty is thick, juicy and perfectly seasoned, the bun has a hint of char. The chips – fries, if we’re being pedantic – are just right, not too thin. This (below) is the Real McCoy, with bacon, cheese and a thick slice of raw onion on top.

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My clear favourite so far – I haven’t yet tried them all, but I plan to – is the C.R.E.A.M. burger (Cheddar Rules Everything Around Meat – a Wu-Tang Clan reference, or so I’m reliably informed). The burger is covered with cheddar, bacon, and then a large dollop of horseradish mayo, which gives the whole thing a bite and an edge. This is an incredible piece of burger engineering.

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And there’s more. The shakes. Oh, the shakes. If Elvis really is still alive, then the peanut butter and banana shake would kill him instantly. The Nutella and burnt marshmallow shake is almost ridiculously thick and creamy – it needed a lot of stirring before it could be sucked through a straw. I could almost hear the wails from my doctor back home in Glasgow.

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As the restaurant’s name might suggest, Brooklyn beers are available here in three varieties if milkshakes aren’t your thing.

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Brooklyn the Burger Joint has two main locations at the time of writing. Both are inconvenient to find and get to, but persevere. The first is in Seorae Maeul, the French village near Express Bus Terminal or Seocho stations. The second is in a sidestreet in Samseong-dong near the northwestern end of COEX, up by the Seven Luck Casino and the Intercontinental Hotel.

If both of these are too irritating to reach, there is a Brooklyn Burger in the Gourmet 494 food court in Galleria department store in Apgujeong, conveniently situated next to the Vatos counter so that the ambulance will be able to find you. This outlet runs a more limited selection of burgers and sides at more-or-less the same price, and the quality seemed to me to be pretty much as good as the originals – but nothing will beat a pilgrimage to the real burger Shangri-La itself.

I’d been hunting for a good burger since my local burger joint, Two Hands Burgers, was bought over a few months ago and destroyed by some guy who now serves them with – I kid you not – doughnuts on top. The hunt is now over, and this is the place. Accept no substitutes.

  • Category: American
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try:Everything, but not at one sitting.
  • Subway: Seorae Maeul: Express Bus Terminal (신사역) exit 5
    Samseong: Samseong station (삼성역) exit 5
  • Directions:See below.

Seorae Maeul: OK, this is a little complicated. Walk out of exit 5, cross the road and turn right, heading west away from Express Bus Terminal. After four or five minutes walking along the road, take the first street left, which will twist and turn a little but basically go straight. You’ll walk past a kids’ playground and some apartments, still walking straight, and just as you think you’re utterly lost, you’ll see Brooklyn Burger perched on a corner to your left. Unless you don’t see it, of course, in which case you really are lost.

Brooklynburger Seocho

Samseong: Come out of exit 5 and walk past COEX and the Intercontinental Grand on your right. Take the first turning right and walk up the side of COEX, past the City Air Terminal and the casino. Take the last turning to the left before you reach the top of the street, and then the first right. Brooklyn is there waiting for you.

Brooklynburger COEX

Review: Tonic Curry

restaurants | January 24, 2014 | By

No, not real curry, but the fluorescent yellow Japanese-inspired stuff that looks like something from Fukushima. This was one of the first things I was given to eat when I came to work in a hagwon here and it’s fair to say that I was never a big fan. However, if you harbour similar prejudices, and associate Korean “curry” with vomit-coloured packet mixtures from Family Mart, then Tonic Curry in Gyeongnidan might change your mind.

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Tonic is a tiny place on Gyeongnidan-gil, a few doors down from Don Charly’s, that basically has two dishes; chicken curry and beef curry. Both are really good, a million miles away from the bland homogeneity of the usual prepared curry mixes here. Instead of tiny chunks of meat and diced carrot, the chicken here comes in large pieces, along with a boiled egg and a hearty serving of rice.

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Look, it’s curry, what do you expect it to look like? Anyway, it also comes with some nice little banchan (side dishes) that really complement the curry well.

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Be warned; this curry is pretty hot. Not kick-you-in-the-balls hot, but definitely on the spicy side. If you are chili-averse, or just American (kidding! kidding!), you might want to give Tonic a miss.

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There are only about six seats in Tonic, but one or two are usually free. I first came in here when Don Charly’s was full (which is every day), but the restaurant is worth a trip on its own. It is reasonably priced at just 7 – 8,000 won for a meal, and makes a great little lunch spot.

At the risk of repetition, if you really don’t like Korean-style curry, then there’s no earthly point in coming here. Even if you do, or are willing to be convinced, it’s not going to change your life; it’s a curry. But give these guys some love, because God only knows how a restaurant with six seats is a viable business model. This is one place that deserves to thrive.

  • Category: Korean / Japanese
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: The curry. Because that’s it.
  • Subway: Noksapyeong (녹가평) exit 2
  • Directions: If you’re coming from Noksapyeong, walk up towards Namsan until you see Noxa restaurant on your right, and cross over the road (this is Gyeongnidan-gil). Walk up the street for about 5 minutes, pass the Wellbeing Mart. Tonic is on your right. If you get as far as the Wellness Gym, you’ve gone too far.

Tonic directions

Review: Dongin Dong – makgeolli and spicy galbijjim

restaurants | January 16, 2014 | By

Makgeolli joints are ten-a-penny in Seoul, many serving some variation on jeon (전), those lovely battered snacks that vaguely resemble savoury pancakes and which Koreans insist, endearingly but insanely, on calling “Korean pizza”. Dongin Dong (동인동) takes this formula and perfects it, and has long been a favourite among those in the know.

jeon and makgeolli at Dongin Dong

Dongin Dong basically does two dishes, and does them damned well. The first is the aforementioned jeon, which you can get in a number of varieties or as a set (modeum jeon – 모듬전), including courgette (zucchini), tofu, two types of pork and – many people’s favourites – oyster. They come to the table piled high on a big plate with a spicy soy sauce dip, and are best eaten hot, which is just as well cause they won’t last long.

Spicy galbijjim at Dongin Dong

The star of the show is the spicy galbijjim (매운 찜갈비) from which the restaurant takes its name (Dongin-dong is a district of Daegu where the best spicy galbijjim can be found). This fiery beef stew is brought out in battered pots like the one above. It’s served mostly off the bone and is succulent, tender and, usually, extremely spicy. After you’ve polished off most of the stew, ask them to mix up a mess of bokkeumbap (fried rice – 볶음밥) in the bowl with the remaining sauce and beef – make sure you leave a bit. This is a delicious and filling way to round off the meal, assuming you have any space left.

If you’re a group of foreigners they sometimes tone down the chili level in line with the usual “white people can’t handle spicy food” attitude of most Koreans – so if you want it as God intended, be sure to say so  (“mepgae he juseyo” – “맵게 해주세요”).

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Makgeolli is served in these funky little kettles and you’ll need it to defuse the chili bomb in your mouth. Drink plenty of it, just to be on the safe side.

The menu is printed on the wall and has no English translation, so a Korean speaker will come in handy. If none is available, I’ve translated the main menu items so you don’t have to:

[Menu photo with annotations]

The place used to be a real spit-and-sawdust joint, with people lining up out of the front door in all weathers. A recent refurbishment has seen it expanded a bit and tarted up, but it still retains an authentic feel. There are countless other spicy galbijjim and jeon places around the city, of course, but this is among the best and is well worth the trip to Sinsa, and if you are still thirsty afterwards (or, less likely, hungry), Garosu-gil is just a couple of blocks away.

  • Category: Korean
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Spicy galbijjim (매운 찜갈비)
  • Subway: Sinsa (신사역) exit 6
  • Directions: Come out of Sinsa station exit 6 and walk along the road for 50 yards or so. Turn right just before Beans Bin Coffee and go down the road. Dongin Dong is marked by the blue sign above.

Review: El Greco’s, Gyeongnidan

restaurants | January 13, 2014 | By

Having opened in early 2012, El Greco’s is now well-established in the up-and-coming Gyeongnidan area. It’s a small place which seeks to recreate the authentic taste of a Greek souvlaki restaurant. Since I have family in Greece, and crave this stuff more often than normal people, I come here quite often.

Basically there are five main courses on the menu. Gyros, which is the Greek answer to the doner kebab (pork, chicken or lamb meat carved off a rotating spit); souvlaki, the equivalent with chunks of meat instead of carved scraps; falafel; calamari, and fish & chips. The first two come either wrapped in pita bread or, as above, served on a plate with some salad and the pita on the side, which is the way I prefer it. There’s also an awesome Moroccan lamb soup which is really nice.

The meat was flavoursome if authentically greasy; the pita was excellent. The tomatoes weren’t up to much, but expecting Greek-standard tomatoes in Korea would be ridiculous. The tzatziki was very nice – a bit lighter than the gloopy mixtures you typically get in the Greek islands, but excellent with the bread and meat.

IMG_2234There are also drinks on the menu – beers range from 6-8000 won, with bottles of Australian wine at around 35K. There’s also a range of constantly changing special offers on beers, wines and cocktails. The day I was in, the guy was playing some pretty good music too, which was a surprise – but with only 14 seats, I’m not sure if you’re going to sit there drinking all Sunday, cheap wine or not.

IMG_2237El Greco’s is a good option for a light-ish lunch, or HBC dwellers who want to grab a bite on the way into Itaewon. The gyros set, with pita bread, fries and soft drink, is 11,500W; the full plate as shown above is 13,500. It’s not that cheap, but the food is right on the money and worth a detour.

  • Category: Greek
  • Price: $$$$
  • Subway: Noksapyeong exit 2
  • Directions: Coming from Noksapyeong station (or Itaewon), come out of exit 2 and walk up the road towards Namsan / Haebangchon. Take the underpass under the road to the right hand side and turn right at Noxa. El Greco is about 2 minutes further, on the left, where the small alleyway joins the street. Coming from HBC, cross over the bridge and head down the alleyway past The Baker’s Table (just before Craftworks). At the end of the alleyway (which is filled with little mom-and-pop style Korean places) is El Greco’s, on your left.