Here it is, the most eagerly awaited post of the year; the second annual Soju Sunrise Food Awards, showcasing the best foreign food that I think Seoul has to offer. No doubt squadrons of restaurateurs are reading this with fear in their souls, whole chains poised to collapse if they aren’t mentioned in my year-end review. What can I say? With great power comes great responsibility.
As with last year’s favourites – quite a few of whom return this year – I don’t present this list as a definitive “best of” but rather a compilation of my favourites, the places I return to again and again, the places that made 2016 worth persevering with. No doubt in each category there are better places around, and you should feel free to set me right in the comments – but these are the places that pop up again and again on my Instagram feed.
Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and see you all in 2017!
It’s been very busy in the real world of Soju Sunrise, but things are quietening down so hopefully I’ll be posting some more reviews and notes on Seoul eateries very soon. In the meantime, here are some of the things I’ve been eating over the last few weeks. (You can see most of these pics, as well as many more, on my Instagram feed at instagram.com/sojusunrise.)
The Italian Chamber of Commerce in Korea runs an Italian Food Festival every May, with a dozen participating restaurants around the city producing special menus to reflect the diverse cuisine of that nation. Apparently. My concerns are more simple; where can I stuff my face with good, fresh pasta in Seoul without having to search for strands of spaghetti in a sea of “pink” sauce and mortgage all my possessions to afford the bill?
Fortunately, Brera is to the rescue. The Beotigogae restaurant invited me on Wednesday last week to try their special Food Festival set menu, and I took the trusty Canon along to record some photos of the fare they are serving up during the month.
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.
One of things that America does better than anyone else in the world – apart from CGI dinosaurs, projecting military power around the globe and cleaning up world football – is pizza. Italians will splutter into their grappa at such a statement, and it’s true that the US has been responsible for culinary monstrosities like pineapple on pizza or the cheese stuffed crust. But I really felt like until I ate pizza in places like New Haven, CT or Bleecker Street in New York, everything I’d had before was just a pale imitation of what dough, tomato and cheese could really be.
Anyway, here we are in Korea and, let’s face it, if there’s a bright centre to the pizza universe, you’re in the country it’s farthest from. I’ve been fed some loathsome concoctions here by people who should really know better – sweet potato, corn, cherries, you name it. When I hear the words “Mr Pizza” I reach for my revolver. All I want is a slice of pepperoni pizza on my way home from work, preferably with a bottle of beer to wash it down. Is that so hard?
Not any more, thanks to Maddux. This place is so well hidden in the back streets of Itaewon that you’d think they were trying to hide from the Tasty Road crowd, and let’s hope those two never find it, because it’s an unspoilt gem that’s well worth checking out.
It’s a simple idea, pizza by the slice; but one which, outside the US, many places struggle to get right. Maddux gets it right. You can buy a whole pie, and I guess if you were a large enough group that might be cost-effective, but the slices are big enough as it is – I could have put away two without too much trouble, but one was perfectly sufficient, and I didn’t want to look like too much of a pig in front of my lunch date.
A margherita pizza was being made as we walked in, so we asked for a slice of that when it came out of the oven. In the meantime we grabbed some pepperoni, my typical go-to topping. It was good; crispy crust and nicely greasy. Maybe a tiny bit dry, but it was a good slice and satisfied my pepperoni cravings. (It was cut in half to enable us to share – don’t blame them!)
The margherita was exceptional. Still-bubbling cheese, copious fresh basil, a drizzle of olive oil. Perfection. I demand meat on my pizza, but for this I could be a vegetarian, albeit a very fat one. I’m still dreaming about this one, a day later.
Another pizza that’s on special right now is a so-called “meatball” pizza which looked and tasted to me like it was topped with regular Italian-style sausage. Like the pepperoni, it was very solid, also a tiny bit dry but it had been reheated rather than served fresh from the oven, so all in all I was not complaining. And the extra-crispy crust made up for it. I’d very much like to taste this one fresh out of the pizza oven, though.
The interior of the restaurant is simple but inviting, it’s nice and bright during the day and they have a reasonable selection of beers, though it could improve. Better still, it’s open every day, including Mondays which are normally very hit-and-miss around this part of town.
Maddux would be a great place to go to fuel up before a night out, or just for a quiet lunch date with friends. It’s unpretentious and serves up really good pizza. I particularly liked the fact that it had a thin crispy crust – so hard to find here, really – and was reasonably priced at 4,700W for a slice of pepperoni and 5,400 for the meatball (the margherita, with its expensive imported ingredients, was 6,700W).
Based on my experience I’d suggest taking a look to see what’s cooking and get a slice fresh out of the oven. You won’t regret it. Category: Pizza
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Margherita pizza
- Subway: Itaewon (이태원역) exit 4
- Directions: Come out of Itaewon Station exit 4 and walk down the road leading away from the Hamilton Hotel, passing Gecko’s on your right and Taco Bell on the left. Turn right down the first small street, pass JR and Wolfhound pubs, and you’ll get to a small intersection immediately after. Turn left there, and Maddux is another minute or two down the small road, on your right.
- Hours: 12 – 10pm, seven days a week.
Happy New Year and welcome to 2015! I don’t normally post recipes on this blog, on the very sound basis that I think (a) lots of people are better cooks than me, and (b) there is a whole world of cookery blogs and magazines out there where you can find a million different variations on every possible kind of dish. But, truth to tell, since I returned to Korea a couple of weeks ago from a long and amazing break in South America, I have been far too greedy to stop to take any photos of the food I’ve been guzzling, and eating out at old favourites rather than trying anywhere new.
I hope that’ll change soon – I’m very keen to try the new Lobster Bar in Itaewon, the Beastro in Hongdae, and Meatballism in Gyeongnidan, none of which I have yet visited – but for the moment, I’ve no restaurant reviews worth blogging.
So, instead, here’s a dessert I made a couple of days ago. Everyone loves tiramisu – even though, back in Britain, at any rate, it has long graduated from exotic Italian treat to weary food cliché. So when I made dinner for a friend last week, it seemed to make sense to give it a whirl. There were only two problems with this plan: I had not made tiramisu since about 1996, and some of the ingredients seemed to be a little tricky to find.
The first problem was easily solved, since there are almost as many recipes online for tiramisu as there are cat photos. After a bit of hunting, I decided to use the scrumptious Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Irish cream tiramisu. Like many people, I have a bottle of Bailey’s sitting in my fridge which I never touch, so a recipe that used this, rather than the more traditional rum, seemed ideal.
Otherwise it is quite a traditional version: ladyfinger biscuits (more properly called Savoiardi), mascarpone cheese, coffee, and so on. This quickly led to problem number two. Mascarpone I could find – albeit at the usual hefty prices, from any foreign food store in the Itaewon area, and even sometimes in E-Mart these days – but ladyfinger biscuits? Where the hell?
Luckily help was at hand in the form of the very helpful Giovanni, from HBC’s mighty Il Gattino, who advised that they could be found in Lotte and other fancy department stores. But before I could even tread warily into a Lotte food court, I found them in High Street Market in Itaewon – albeit, again, at a fairly eyewatering price.
The recipe itself is reasonably straightforward, if a little fiddly. To start, brew some very strong espresso coffee – at least a couple of times stronger than you would normally drink it (four times stronger, if you are Korean).
Let it cool down in a bowl and then mix in some Bailey’s. You’ll get an unattractive milky brown mixture, but it tastes great. Try not to drink it yet.
Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the tiramisu mixture. Whisk two egg yolks with some sugar, and then fold in some more Bailey’s and the mascarpone cheese. It’ll take a little while to get the lumps out, but persevere.
Then you add a whisked egg white and mix the whole lot gently together.
I added some vanilla extract – the real stuff, full of tiny little black seeds, not the cheaper and nastier essence that is what you normally find here (has anyone ever seen real vanilla bean paste in Korea?) – but this is optional and probably would get me shot in a real Italian kitchen. Whatever.
The original recipe calls for a large glass or Pyrex dish, but these are damnably hard to find in Korea. I substituted these nifty small glass containers from the supermarket, and they worked nicely, each one containing enough dessert for two people, or one Andy-sized person. (They are oven-safe, so you can also use them for individual pasta bakes, or something like that.)
Now, you need to look sharp. Dip a few ladyfingers at a time into the coffee / Baileys’s mix, until they are damp but not soggy. You need to work quickly, because within seconds they will be falling apart in the bowl, so they need to be taken out as soon as they are soaked through. I also suggest giving them a gentle squeeze to get some (but of course not all) of the boozy mixture out of them, because otherwise your tiramisu will end up swimming in liquid, like mine was.
Line the bottom of the dishes with the damp biscuits, spoon on half of the mascarpone mixture between the bowls, and then repeat with another layer of each.
Then all you have to do is cover and whack them in the fridge – these E-Mart dishes came with fitted lids, which makes them even more convenient – and leave them for at least four hours, preferably overnight, but not more than a couple of days on account of the raw egg. Then, when you’re ready to serve, dust a little cocoa powder over the top, and Bob’s your uncle.
Verdict? Well, for my first effort at making this dessert since the days when there were only three Star Wars movies and Manchester City were in the Second Division, not bad. There was a bit too much coffee and Baileys swimming in the bottom of the dish, and I ran out of mascarpone mix on the second bowl (since it’s about 11,000 won for a 250ml tub, I think I can be forgiven) so the second dish looked a bit lopsided. Overall, though, it was a success. Giovanni may splutter into his espresso at the shockingly untraditional addition of Bailey’s – and I’m quite sure his version is a thousand times better – but this makes a great, if expensive, dessert to make for a special dinner.
The full recipe, which makes 8 generous portions, is below. If you reduce the quantities, as I did, make sure you have enough of the coffee mix – these biscuits suck in liquid faster than [redacted – Soju Sunrise lawyers].
- 1½ cups very strong espresso, made with instant powder or beans (cooled)
- 250 ml Baileys
- 400 grams Savoiardi (ladyfinger) biscuits
- 2 large eggs
- 75 grams caster sugar (regular white sugar will do, at a pinch)
- 500 grams mascarpone cheese
- 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)