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!
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.