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 the circle of life. As one mighty deep-dish pizza joint, the much-beloved Windy City Pizza pop-up in Gyeongnidan, takes what we hope is a temporary break from activities before opening as a brick-and-mortar operation, a new pizzeria inspired by the flavours of Chicago’s sister city of Detroit rises to take its place.
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.
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.