It’s pretty much impossible to find a decent burger in Gangnam, certainly one that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. The Alibi near Gangnam station, on the site of what used to be Craftworks, claims to have a 7-star Michelin chef making burgers in their kitchen, but the food and drink there is priced to match and it’s not exactly the sort of place you’d pop in for a quick bite at lunchtime. Basically your choices are to schlep to Seorae Maeul or Samseong for a Brooklyn Burger – admittedly, a superb choice that is well worth the journey – or to check out the new Burger B franchise in COEX, which (if it’s as good as the Hongdae branch) would be a more than acceptable option.
Three cheers, then, for Firebell, which has just opened up in Daechi-dong between Seollung and Hanti stations. Coincidentally, the restaurant is in the same block as my work, which I took to be God’s sign that He needs me to eat more burgers. So in I went. Who am I to question Him?Firebell looks and tastes like an American diner, which I mean as a compliment. They have a red and white theme going on and no more than a handful of tables, I reckon about six. You can watch them making your burger in the compact kitchen. On my first visit I ordered the Habana burger. This has a slightly spicy jalapeno / cheese topping reminiscent of the CREAM burger at Brooklyn, and the similarities do not end there. The 5oz patty was perfectly seasoned and cooked, with a nice char on the outside but pink inside, and the bun was soft (perhaps even slightly too much so). On my second trip – no, I didn’t eat both of these at the same sitting – I just had to try the Mac n’ Cheese burger. This is exactly what it sounds like: a burger with some macaroni cheese, as we’d call it back home, on top of the burger. The effect was nice but a bit odd – it was basically like a cheeseburger with some random pasta shapes on top of it. Is this a thing in America? Whatever, it’s another sign of your nation’s greatness.All burgers are 5oz (apart from the double) and very reasonably priced at between 7,000 and 8,500. For 4,000 won you can add fries and a soda, which include the option of Dr Pepper or Cherry Coke for the homesick expats among you. They also have some decent imported beers available and some very nice-looking shakes, which I haven’t yet tried – more shades of Brooklyn Burger.To be clear, these burgers are great. There’s no bullshit toppings on them, no sweet sauce, no Korean-style eight slabs of lettuce to clear off the bun. Just a really good, well-cooked burger. On the modest size, it’s true, but the fatties can always order the double; for a lunchtime treat, it’s perfect. I’m not saying I’d travel across the city for it – that honour remains with Brooklyn the Burger joint – but as a neighbourhood diner, Firebell is pretty much perfect in every way. If you live or work south of the river, give it your custom, and let’s make sure they don’t go anywhere.
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try:Habana burger
- Subway: Seollung (선릉역) exit 2 / Hanti (한티역) exit 1
- Directions: Coming from Seollung station, come out of exit 2 and walk down the street for 6-7 minutes until you pass an intersection with a pharmacy and an optician on the corner. There is a Pizza Hut and a Cafe Nescafe on the left. Turn left after that and Firebell will be on the left side of the sidestreet after about 50 yards. From Hanti exit 1, walk up towards the same spot and turn right at the Cafe Nescafe.
- Hours: Open seven days 11am – 9:30pm. They occasionally take a mid-afternoon break so if you are coming from afar, call ahead or check their Facebook page.
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 cuisine of South East Asia is poorly served by restaurants in Korea. Yes, Thai places are thick on the ground, but let’s face it; most of them are pretty average, and those that aren’t (Wang Thai in Itaewon, say) are fairly pricey, so you end up paying through the nose for something that in Chiang Mai would cost you a couple of bucks. I’m a fan of Kkaoli Pochana, in Gyeongnidan – not everyone is, mind you – but even there, if you can possibly get a seat, your street food experience comes at distinctly un-streetfoody prices.
[July 2017 update: This location has now closed, unfortunately.]
As for Vietnamese food, well, Pho Bay, Pho Mons… just… no. (There was a place in Gangnam years ago called What the Pho, but I never went in.) There are a couple of legit hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese eateries that buck the trend, in Wangsimni and way out in Ansan. But basically if you crave the flavours of anywhere south of Hong Kong, but aren’t able to get there, you’re generally out of luck.
Kitchen Nyonya aims to buck that trend by providing authentic Malaysian food at reasonable prices in a nice, reasonably upscale eating environment – an almost unheard-of trifecta anywhere in Seoul, let alone at Gangnam Station. Does it succeed? Well, largely and with one major caveat, which we’ll come to, the answer is: yes.
(The Baba-Nyonya are ethnic Chinese, also known as Straits Chinese, who settled in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Anyone who has been to Melaka, for example, may have eaten Nyonya food, which is a sort of fusion of Chinese and Malay, as you might expect. If you haven’t, go! Melaka is great and the food is fantastic.)
Travelogue / history lesson over. Kitchen Nyonya is, I think it’s fair to say, more generically Malaysian cuisine than specifically Nyonya. The menu is an eclectic and occasionally awkward mix of stirfries, curries and Malay dishes. It’s rare to find a restaurant in Malaysia where you can pair roti canai bread with Chinese stir-fried beef noodles, but here you can, if you really want to.
We ordered a range of dishes. The aforementioned stir-fried beef was really nice, a little spicy but nothing too fiery. Rice-based dishes like nasi goreng were also good, and their nasi lemak (above and below), which is served with a choice of chicken, curry or seafood, was filling and reasonably priced.
In order to properly assess the authenticity of the food, I brought a Malaysian friend with me to pass judgement. She is a harsh judge, and her initial reaction was a bit… meh. “Rice is not right”, she said. “It should have ginger in it. This is just plain rice. Roti is not home-made. The chicken is OK.”
As she ate – and there was little let-up in the pace of her eating – her views slowly became more favourable. “This sambal is awesome”, she drooled. “The chicken is pretty good actually.” Judging by the number of Malaysians that were dining in there by the end of her meal, she wasn’t alone in that view. Her final verdict? Not bad, and she would come here again.
Ah, but there’s the caveat, and a big one at that. As I was preparing this review, a message was posted on Kitchen Nyonya’s Facebook page; their landlord has cancelled their lease, and the restaurant closes this week. Disaster! Or perhaps not. They have vowed to reopen nearby at the earliest opportunity, and even sent me a message urging me to write the review anyway, which is what I’ve done, in the hope that by the time you read this, they’ll be back up and running somewhere else.
So, there we are. Only one month a food blogger and already my reviews are closing down restaurants. Perhaps I am a jinx… but if not, then good luck to the folks at Kitchen Nyonya, and we’ll hope to see them back soon.
- Category: Malaysian
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: nasi lemak
- Subway / Directions: Gangnam (강남역) exit… well, we’ll see.