A lot of foreigners have something of a love-hate relationship with samgyeopsal, Korea’s national grill meat of choice. On the one hand, it’s cheap, ubiquitous and frequently delicious. On the other hand, there’s a lot of nasty samgyeopsal out there; fatty, gristly, studded with little buttons of cartilage and in the time it takes to eat a couple of morsels the remaining meat, which has of course all being lumped on the grill at the same time by your impatient co-diners, has caramelised to a crisp.
So don’t believe people when they opine that all Korean BBQ places are the same. They are not, emphatically not; and while you can get a good cheap meal anywhere in the city, that doesn’t mean that all samgyeopsal was created equal. There are, basically, two main variables that you need to consider when hunting down a good feed; the kind of grill that you’ll be eating from and, obviously but crucially, the quality of the meat you’ll be served. Not all places get that right, especially at the lower end of the price spectrum.
Ceramic House in Gangnam gets it right. The name (옹기집, in Korean) gives a clue as to the first reason why. Instead of the regular thin metal grills that pork is normally cooked on, the table is dominated by the large, smooth dome of a ceramic cooking surface, set over a gas grill. Even once the heat is turned on, the clay (or whatever it is) takes ages to get properly hot. But the heat diffuses evenly over the entire cooking surface. There is no acrid smoke, no carcinogenic black encrustation.
The second element in its success is the quality of the meat. The samgyeopsal comes to the table partially cooked and is set down on the grill in one piece. As the ceramic dome gets hotter, the pieces of pork cook relatively slowly but perfectly evenly. Really, I can’t overstate the difference; you will notice for yourself.
There are other little touches that you would expect in a far more expensive restaurant; a really salty, flavourful doenjangjjigae. A small bowl of tofu set on the edge of the grill to warm up with the meat. Even the ssamjang is of a higher quality than usual.
The restaurant isn’t your typical galbi joint in appearance, either. It’s small and almost hipster-ish on the inside, something which my slightly crappy photos don’t really capture. You could bring someone here on a date, which you can’t say of most samgyeopsal places, let’s face it.
The biggest surprise, given the quality of the food, is the reasonable price. A generous 180g (6½ oz) portion of samgyeopsal is 13,000 won; a meal here with beer and a couple of side dishes will probably set you back 20,000 won or so. More expensive than the place on the end of your street, then, but frankly given some of the garbage we pay premium prices for in this city, it’s a steal.
A couple of people have told me off recently for only posting positive reviews; they want more hatchet jobs, places to avoid. Maybe I’ll do that in the future, but not with Ceramic House. It does the big things well and gets the little things right, too. It’s a place that deserves just a little bit more fame. Highly recommended.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try:The samgyeopsal. Duh.
- Subway: Sinnonhyeon (신논현역) exit 4
- Directions: From exit 4 of Sinnonhyeon station, walk down the sidestreet past Beer King in the direction of Gangnam. Take the first left and then right, and Ceramic House will be just there.
- Hours: 4pm – 2:30am daily except Sundays.
The South African expats in Seoul – a relatively small but hardy bunch – have long had the mighty Braai Republic as a favoured watering hole / food venue. More recently, a newer option has opened up just down the road from Braai, in the shape of the delightful Twiga restaurant.
[July 2017 update: This location has now closed, unfortunately.]
The atmosphere at Twiga is nothing like its more beery compatriot. The restaurant is a sunny, inviting space on the fifth floor of an otherwise nondescript building on the outskirts of Itaewon. It’s a little tricky to find, but repays the effort.Twiga’s menu is centred on homemade South African specialties that are available almost nowhere else in the city. The lamb chops (above) are succulent and perfectly cooked, served with some really good chips, or fries to you foreigner readers. Lamb lovers will know that there are vanishingly few places to enjoy Western-style lamb chops in the city, and this is most definitely one of them.
Owner Vanita Swart is proud that all of their specialties are home-made, and the bobotie is a great example of this. It’s sort of a sweet-spicy South African version of lasagne, and again comes served with chips – just as lasagne should be! The plate above runs at 20,000 won.The boerewors sausage are among the best sausages in town, and served with a sweet relish that really complements them well. If I had one criticism, it would be that – well, I’ll get to that.
The best value on the menu, in my view, is the most expensive item – the mixed grill platter. For 35,000 won, you get salad, lamb chop, boerewors sausage, bobotie, a small steak with your choice of sauces, and a nice vegetable gratin (above). I put this away in no time, but was stuffed by the end.
The steak which formed the culmination of our mixed grill, with a mild cheese sauce on top. This was really good, and perfectly cooked. The meat items in the mixed grill came out as they were ready, which meant that they were tender and piping hot, but also meant that we had to eat them in the order in which we were served.
I went to Twiga some weeks ago now – and have been too busy / lazy to upload my pictures until now – but it is fair to say that I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely go back. We went in a party of five or six people and most of us were delighted, especially those among us who ordered the mixed grill.
In the interests of balance, I should note that the praise in our party for Twiga wasn’t universal. One of our party had the boerewors as a main dish and felt quite strongly that his meal (pictured above), while tasty, was poor value for 20,000 won, with two small sausages and a helping of chips and salad. Mind you, he does complain a lot at the best of times.
Those of us who had enjoyed the grill had zero complaints, but it is worth noting if, like me, you are a particularly hungry hippo.
Either way, no meal at Twiga would be complete without a slice of the majestic, the famous, Amarula cheesecake. Those who have been to Braai Republic will know this magnificent creation, which Vanita has been supplying for them for years. This is the sort of cake about which Greek poets would have composed ballads. It will change the way you see the world. Girls, especially, go weak at the knees for this cake. I know ladies who keep a slice of this cake in a drawer by their bedside just in case they – how shall I put this delicately? – get lonely during the night. It is the Sistine Chapel of cakes.
In summary, I quite like the cake.
Twiga is a fine addition to the Seoul restaurant scene. It is a little out of the way and, like many foreign food restaurants in the city nowadays, it is nowhere near as cheap as an order of samgyeopsal or a bowl of bibimbap anywhere in Korea. But for those prepared to pay a little bit more for something a little different, it is a welcome change. Looking at these photos again after a couple of weeks has made me keen to return and check out the new dishes, cakes and cocktails that Vanita has put on the menu. Check it out.
- Category: South African
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Bobotie, mixed grill, Amarula cheesecake
- Subway: Noksapyeong exit 3
- Hours: Generally open 7 days, including lunch – check with them on their Facebook page to make sure
- Directions: Twiga is located on the antique furniture street south of the main Itaewon drag. The easiest way to get there is to walk from Noksapyeong subway station down past the big Yongsan district office that looks like a glass-and steel version of the Jawa’s Sandcrawler from Star Wars, and then turn left after the Crown Hotel. If you are starting from Itaewon subway, then similarly, walk down the street of antique furniture, past Taco Bell, Left Coast and various other places, until you get to a large street onto which you can turn right, which is also full of antique shops. Twiga is on the fifth floor of a building which also contains a hostel and another restaurant. For more useful directions, check out their Facebook group.