Review: Ceramic House in Gangnam – perhaps Seoul’s best samgyeopsal?
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.
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