The phrase “hidden gem” is wildly overused in all walks of life, not least among pretentious bloggers writing about food and drink. But in this case it is quite justified, because this new HBC cafe is about as well hidden as any establishment could ever be. It’s no exaggeration to say that you could spend a day looking for it and never find it unless you knew exactly where to look. Let me tell you about Orang Orang.
Valentine’s Day, and love is in the air. You must have noticed? All weekend, Gyeongnidan was full of sickening couples engaging in very public displays of affection which you’d never have seen in Korea a few years back (thanks, Obama). My Facebook is still full of nauseating photos of flowers, chocolates, and motivational quotes about love. Me, I spent Sunday in bed with my oldest partner, the flu, and mostly watched TV.
But nothing says love in Korea like a nice upmarket Italian meal, and so, on that very very shaky hook, let’s chat about one of the nicest; Scopa the Chef, in Itaewon.
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed, unfortunately.]
Chef Santino Sortino is something of a veteran of the Italian food scene in Seoul, and Scopa the Chef in Itaewon is a new sister restaurant to the original in Cheongdam. Now, I’m normally far too cheap to go fine dining in Cheongdam, but the opening of a high-quality restaurant a short stagger from my flat is enough of a reason for me to try something new. So one fine evening a couple of weeks ago I rounded up an accomplice and we went to see what Scopa had to offer.
It’s well hidden in the most unprepossessing of alleyways just off the new ‘hot’ food street overlooking Noksapyeong, which already boasts Little Baja, Gino’s NY Pizza, Gilbert Burger, Coreanos and Manimal among several others. The small exterior opens into a nice space, just large enough to give you a shout of getting a table, but not big enough for it to be impersonal.
The menu is varied and changes from time to time – this was what it looked like on the evening I visited.
The wine list comes separately and runs the gamut from pricey to very pricey. There are options under 50,000 won, but if you want to wander in for a bowl of spaghetti bolognese and a glass or two of plonk, you might be better off elsewhere.
We started with the carpaccio of beef (above). It was terrific, but the copious use of truffle paste in the dish might put some off – the smell of truffle was coming off the plate even before the waiter set it down in front of us. Lacking in subtlety, then, but with shavings of parmesan, fresh rocket (ruccola) and a judicious use of black pepper, the strong flavours did work well. Again, not a cheap dish – the price varies depending on the ingredients being used on any given day – but it hovered around the 40,000 won mark.
After that came the pasta. I ordered a most unphotogenic bowl of carbonara with Italian sausage. It was pretty perfect. The sausage, slightly spicy and distinctly fennelly, came through loud and clear; the carbonara was a billion miles from the creamy monstrosities usually served under this name elsewhere in the city (and, it should be said, around the world). It’s quite a heavy dish so I was left more than satisfied, but I could have eaten twice as much. Very nice.
My companion preferred to get chitarra e vongole, with white wine, tomatoes, eggplant and clams. This was a presentation designed to impress. If we’d been on a date, this would have been the point where she started to think that maybe the old man wasn’t really too bad-looking if you ignored the double chin and paunch. Since we weren’t on a date, she just shut up and demolished the pasta. I managed to get a taste of it and it was terrific, fresh-tasting, garlicky and moreish. A simple dish executed well.
Both dishes were cooked al dente, another thing so rare in Korea where pasta is almost never served with ‘bite’.
Our total bill with shared starter, two pastas and a couple of [good] beers came to a bit over 110,000 won, if memory serves. If you’re comfortable dining at this price point, I’d happily recommend Scopa – there are plenty of places where you’d eat half as well for twice the price. Even if you’re a broke teacher looking for a spot for a special occasion, Scopa is worth checking out. If you prefer a more “home cooked” style of Italian food, or want more bang for your buck, go to Brera in Beotigogae and eat twice as much.
- Category: Italian
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Carbonara con salsiccie (26,000 won)
- Directions: From Itaewon station, come out of exit 2 and walk along the right hand side of the road towards Noksapyeong. When you get to the hill opposite McDonald’s, walk up the street and Scopa is in the second small alleyway on the right (see photo below). From Noksapyeong, come out of exit 2, walk over the footbridge to the other side of the intersection, and turn right, walking past Little Baja, Coreanos and down into Itaewon before turning left before you reach the bottom of the hill.
- Hours: 5:30pm – midnight (they’re not open for lunch). Call 070-8826-7732 for reservations.
I’ve travelled quite widely in the States, and ate my way from Tex-Mex in Texas, through Cincinnati chili (don’t ask) to some awesome NY pizza in the tourist traps of Bleecker Street and beyond, but one thing that had evaded my radar until this week was Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I knew it existed and knew that it was thicker, deeper and just… different from what I was used to, but the reviews of Chicago pizza places in Seoul were so uniformly negative that I stayed away.
Fortunately, that’s changing. James Yu has done what most armchair internet critics of foreign food in Korea dare not attempt, and is putting his time and money where his mouth is. His fledgling business, if we can call it that, is named Windy City Pizza and he’s done a couple of pop-ups in Hongdae and Gyeongnidan, bringing the genuine Chicago deep dish pie to a hungry expat audience. I’m pleased to say that it’s a winner.
I wouldn’t know real Chicago pizza from a hole in the head, so Google it if you want more details on what it is and how it’s made. The short version is; it’s terrific. I had two slices of the sausage pie, which is priced at 7,500 won per large slice. I’m a big man, but two slices nearly defeated me – one would be enough for many normal people, particularly at lunchtime.
The sausage is made by Hassan from Hassdog and the rest is handmade by James. The crust is totally different from a thin crust NY pizza, let alone the cardboard crusts of many Korean pizzas – this is more like the pastry crust on a Scottish meat pie, which I mean as a compliment. The tomato sauce was garlicky and packed with flavour. Basically the whole thing was on point and completely delicious, which my photos may or may not demonstrate. Quite a hard thing to photograph well.
James is also making two other versions at present, a spinach and a mushroom slice, which I didn’t try because spinach and mushroom. But if it’s anything like this, it must also be great.
Check out the Windy City FB page for details of more pop-ups, the next of which is happening from Monday at Cali Kitchen in Gyeongnidan (which is also well worth your while even outside of special events like this). James sold out in record time this week, so make sure you reserve a slice so you don’t end up disappointed.
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Sausage slice (7,500 won)
- Directions: Cali Kitchen is just behind Maloney’s pub in Gyeongnidan. See map below. Future pop-ups may be in other locations, of course.
- Hours: Check out Windy City’s Facebook page for latest news and advance notice of any further pop-ups.
I’m a sucker for good donkatsu. It was one of the first things I ate in Korea – given to me by a solicitous 원장님 who was worried I wouldn’t eat anything spicy – and I often find myself wandering into a Saboten or Misoya when I need to grab a bite after work or I’m hanging around Gangnam station with time to kill.
There’s much better donkatsu out there, of course, and in recent weeks I’ve been making a bit of an effort to find it. The fruits of that labour will end up as a whole post in itself, but in the meantime it’s worth drawing attention to a place that is attracting the attention of Korean food bloggers, TV shows and the like; Samonim Donkatsu, which is just by Sangsu station in Hongdae.
It took me two attempts to get in here. The first time I came by, around 1pm on a Monday lunchtime, it was mobbed, with a couple of dozen people hanging around waiting to get in. Given that it was below freezing, I didn’t fancy waiting in line outside, so I went off to The Beastro and had one of their fantastic sandwich lunch deals (which are highly recommended).
I was determined, though, so I went back this week. Even though it was still 15 minutes before their noon opening time, on a weekday, the little covered waiting area was already full. I waited around until 12 and then found out that I had to put my name down on a list, along with my order, and come back in 40 minutes. FML.
Choosing what to eat was easy enough, as there are just three options: the signature Samonim donkatsu (사모님돈가스; 8,500 won), a spicy donkatsu served in a skillet drenched in hot sauce (매운돈가스; 9,500 won), and the same dish topped with cheese (치즈토핑 매운돈가스; 12,000 won). I signed up for the first choice, wandered around for half an hour, then came back to claim my seat. It was still bedlam in the waiting area.
I was served a small amuse-bouche of a creamy soup – I think chicken, though I’m not certain. It was delicious; probably just chicken stock thickened with milk and flour, but you could serve this out of espresso cups next to Gangnam Station for man won a pop, and make a fortune.
Next up was my salad, which came with a sweet cream dressing. I wasn’t so wild about this, but then again, it was a salad, so unless it came served with a steak and half the cheerleading squad for the Dallas Cowboys, there was always going to be a limit to how much I liked it. If you don’t care for sweet salad dressings, don’t mix it all up together before you taste it, as I did.
There’s no doubting the star of the show. The Samonim donkatsu dish is endlessly Instagrammable, thanks to its artful arrangement and the tomato cream sauce it’s served with. There’s also a small mound of rice under the well-proportioned cutlet, as well as some more salad and a most un-Korean but nonetheless welcome surprise, a nicely roasted potato.
The donkatsu was perfectly cooked, juicy and not greasy at all. The sauce was not at all spicy, as I’d imagined, but rather tangy and a little sweet, like a tomato soup with cream swirled in – I assume the white part was the same as the salad dressing. To be honest, it worked well; my major problem with a lot of those old-style Korean donkatsu places is the ultra-sweet sauce they slather it with, but here, though it was still a little sweet for my tastes, they don’t overdo it. This was subtle and moreish.
It was terrific. Was it worth waiting the best part of an hour for, though? Well, it’s donkatsu. Good donkatsu, but ultimately just a chunk of pork in breadcrumbs. I don’t like waiting in line for anything, and instinctively avoid anywhere that requires me to do so (it took me a year to go into Vatos for precisely that reason). Nor is there really much chance to go at off-peak times, which is my usual tactic in cases like this; they are open from 12-2pm for lunch, and then take a three hour break before re-opening 5-9pm for dinner. With portions of the spicy donkatsu restricted to a certain number each day (if I understood the sign right), your chances of getting in without having to queue are probably quite minimal.
I’ll be back, though. It was really good and I want to try it again. But I hope that the crowds move on, the locusts descend on a more photogenic dish somewhere else, and I can enjoy my donkatsu in peace. Until then, proceed with a little caution.
- Category: Korean / Japanese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Samonim donkatsu (사모님돈가스) (8,500 won)
- Directions: Come out of Sangsu station exit 1 as if you were heading up to Hongdae, but turn left immediately into the little alleyway – literally, it’s no more than fifteen feet from the subway steps. Follow the alleyway; it’ll bend right and then left again. Samonim Donkatsu is on your left on the second floor. Likely there’ll be people milling around waiting to get in. (If you keep walking a few more feet, you’ll get to Fell and Cole, which is one of the best gelato / ice cream places in Seoul, and an excellent place for dessert afterwards.)
- Hours: 12-2pm and 5-9pm, or whenever they run out, seven days a week.
Always on the lookout for new things to try and new lunch spots within an easy reach of my HBC redoubt, I stumbled upon something interesting last week – a small chain of restaurants that serve one of my favourite Korean soups, yukgaejang (육계장) with a big bowlful of kalguksu noodles to pour into your soup. Just perfect for a filling lunch in this chilly weather, I thought I’d give it a try.
Munbaedong’s Samgakji branch is about as hole-in-the-wall as it gets, a real ajosshi hangout on the “wrong side of the tracks” near Samgakji station. Inside it’s wall-to-wall with people slurping back bowls of spicy beef soup. On my first attempt to have lunch here, there were people waiting outside in the cold for a seat, so I came back a few days later, and managed to bag a small table in the corner.
There’s just three items on the menu (though I never saw a menu): yukgaejang spicy beef soup (육계장), kalguksu noodle soup (칼국수), and the combination of the two, “yuk-kal” (육칼) that I was here to try.
The soup came out in less than a minute, a pleasingly deep red in a big silvery bowl. I added about half the noodles, which were very soft, like overcooked linguine.
Snapping away with my camera brought some eye-rolling from the ajumma, but there were a few young people in there who were also taking photos on their phones, so Instagram away.
The portion of noodles was extremely generous, so much so that adding all of them to the soup, as I eventually did, made it almost more like a soupy bowl of pasta than a soup.
As for the soup itself, it would probably divide opinion. It was spicy but not overly so – after the initial hit of chilli, I barely noticed much heat. It was thick, though that might have been down to the starch from the noodles, and almost tasted like there was a tomato base, though I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been.
There also wasn’t much “filler” in the soup, which normally comes piled with bean sprouts, little fronds of fern bracken and some boiled taro stems along with the beef. This was pretty much beef and spring onion. Now, I really liked that about it, because I enjoy yukgaejang despite all that crap, not because of it. But it’s fair to say that without the noodles, I’d have probably thought this was a decent 육계장, but nothing special.
It was only afterwards that I realised that maybe the little dish of beansprouts and greens served next to my kimchi was supposed to be added to the soup, not eaten as a banchan…? Duh!
So, in summary, check it out next time you’re at Samgakji, or near one of the other locations about town (see below). It didn’t rock my world, but I’ll be back to have it again, because I really liked the combination and it makes a change from soup with rice, and because I’d rather eat in places like Munbaedong than fancy Gangnam dessert cafes every day of the week.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Yuk-kal (육칼) (8,000 won)
- Directions: Munbaedong is a little tricky to get to. It’s at the base of the bridge across the train tracks at Samgakji – from Samgakji station exit 6 or 10, walk up and over to the “wrong side of the tracks” and it’s just on the left. An easier, if slightly more circuitous route, is to get the green No.3 bus that runs from the Hyatt down Gyeongnidan via Noksapyeong towards Samgakji – after some twists and turns, it will turn back towards the railway tracks, and you should get off there and match the map on your phone with my map, below.
- Hours: 9:30am – 6pm every day, though they may stay open a couple of hours later. It gets busy at peak times, so consider visiting after 2pm, especially if there’s more than one or two of you.