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.)
I seem to have written quite a lot about Vietnamese pho on this blog – at least that’s the way it seems. I live close to Pho For You and rather further away from the mighty Pham Thi Chinh, for which you have to go all the way to Wangsimni (but rest assured it’s well worth the trip).
The cafe opposite Bonny’s Pizza has undergone more changes than David Bowie in his pomp. For a long time it was the home of the late lamented Indigo, a veritable Haebangchon institution. More recently it morphed into Good to Go, briefly housed the popular Italian restaurant Il Gattino, and then became Fat Cat, before adding a very shortlived “food truck” counter serving up sandwiches and subs to the late-night crowd.
Such is the pace of change in Haebangchon, the little favela I have called home for nearly five years, that I’m a bit jaded by the plethora of new places around here and Gyeongnidan that open up, serve mediocre or baffling food, and then close a year or so later. So when a small restaurant pops up that’s selling good-quality, honest and non-bullshitty food, it’s worth giving it a little love.
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’m a sucker for good donkatsu. It was one of the first things I ate in Korea – given to me by a solicitous 원장님 who was worried I wouldn’t eat anything spicy – and I often find myself wandering into a Saboten or Misoya when I need to grab a bite after work or I’m hanging around Gangnam station with time to kill.
There’s much better donkatsu out there, of course, and in recent weeks I’ve been making a bit of an effort to find it. The fruits of that labour will end up as a whole post in itself, but in the meantime it’s worth drawing attention to a place that is attracting the attention of Korean food bloggers, TV shows and the like; Samonim Donkatsu, which is just by Sangsu station in Hongdae.
It took me two attempts to get in here. The first time I came by, around 1pm on a Monday lunchtime, it was mobbed, with a couple of dozen people hanging around waiting to get in. Given that it was below freezing, I didn’t fancy waiting in line outside, so I went off to The Beastro and had one of their fantastic sandwich lunch deals (which are highly recommended).
I was determined, though, so I went back this week. Even though it was still 15 minutes before their noon opening time, on a weekday, the little covered waiting area was already full. I waited around until 12 and then found out that I had to put my name down on a list, along with my order, and come back in 40 minutes. FML.
Choosing what to eat was easy enough, as there are just three options: the signature Samonim donkatsu (사모님돈가스; 8,500 won), a spicy donkatsu served in a skillet drenched in hot sauce (매운돈가스; 9,500 won), and the same dish topped with cheese (치즈토핑 매운돈가스; 12,000 won). I signed up for the first choice, wandered around for half an hour, then came back to claim my seat. It was still bedlam in the waiting area.
I was served a small amuse-bouche of a creamy soup – I think chicken, though I’m not certain. It was delicious; probably just chicken stock thickened with milk and flour, but you could serve this out of espresso cups next to Gangnam Station for man won a pop, and make a fortune.
Next up was my salad, which came with a sweet cream dressing. I wasn’t so wild about this, but then again, it was a salad, so unless it came served with a steak and half the cheerleading squad for the Dallas Cowboys, there was always going to be a limit to how much I liked it. If you don’t care for sweet salad dressings, don’t mix it all up together before you taste it, as I did.
There’s no doubting the star of the show. The Samonim donkatsu dish is endlessly Instagrammable, thanks to its artful arrangement and the tomato cream sauce it’s served with. There’s also a small mound of rice under the well-proportioned cutlet, as well as some more salad and a most un-Korean but nonetheless welcome surprise, a nicely roasted potato.
The donkatsu was perfectly cooked, juicy and not greasy at all. The sauce was not at all spicy, as I’d imagined, but rather tangy and a little sweet, like a tomato soup with cream swirled in – I assume the white part was the same as the salad dressing. To be honest, it worked well; my major problem with a lot of those old-style Korean donkatsu places is the ultra-sweet sauce they slather it with, but here, though it was still a little sweet for my tastes, they don’t overdo it. This was subtle and moreish.
It was terrific. Was it worth waiting the best part of an hour for, though? Well, it’s donkatsu. Good donkatsu, but ultimately just a chunk of pork in breadcrumbs. I don’t like waiting in line for anything, and instinctively avoid anywhere that requires me to do so (it took me a year to go into Vatos for precisely that reason). Nor is there really much chance to go at off-peak times, which is my usual tactic in cases like this; they are open from 12-2pm for lunch, and then take a three hour break before re-opening 5-9pm for dinner. With portions of the spicy donkatsu restricted to a certain number each day (if I understood the sign right), your chances of getting in without having to queue are probably quite minimal.
I’ll be back, though. It was really good and I want to try it again. But I hope that the crowds move on, the locusts descend on a more photogenic dish somewhere else, and I can enjoy my donkatsu in peace. Until then, proceed with a little caution.
- Category: Korean / Japanese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Samonim donkatsu (사모님돈가스) (8,500 won)
- Directions: Come out of Sangsu station exit 1 as if you were heading up to Hongdae, but turn left immediately into the little alleyway – literally, it’s no more than fifteen feet from the subway steps. Follow the alleyway; it’ll bend right and then left again. Samonim Donkatsu is on your left on the second floor. Likely there’ll be people milling around waiting to get in. (If you keep walking a few more feet, you’ll get to Fell and Cole, which is one of the best gelato / ice cream places in Seoul, and an excellent place for dessert afterwards.)
- Hours: 12-2pm and 5-9pm, or whenever they run out, seven days a week.