Living the Amerikorean dream, or Seoul Food

I went to Korea once. I had a 17 hour layover, on a cheap flight from Bangkok to Montreal, via Seoul and Chicago. I had grand plans – palaces, temples, more palaces, stand on the border of North Korea and South Korea and hop back and forth, saying “North Korea, South Korea, North Korea, South Korea,” over, and over again. I know you can picture me doing this.

I learned one thing from my brief stint in this bustling Asian megacity – don’t bother going on a Monday. Everything is closed. Palaces – closed. Temples? Closed. DEMILITARIZED ZONE? Closed! Hopes – dashed. There would be no hopping.

But, the bus from the airport is free. I suppose I could have gone to Gyeongbokgung Palace – that one is closed on Tuesdays – but instead, I wandered aimlessly through the eerily quiet city center, flip-flop-claden on a chilly November day. I lasted about 4 hours, and then went back to the airport to use the free wifi – I’d been backpacking for 10 weeks, and thought it was a good idea to let my parents know I was on my way home. Plus this was 2008 – they didn’t have wifi in temples back then.

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What I didn’t do in Seoul (why??) was have a meal. So, have I actually been to Korea? I’m not sure if this pit stop counts, if I apply the criteria that I normally use to determine whether or not I’ve really, truly visited a country. These criteria being, mostly, did I eat?

I was, in fact, introduced to Korean food a few years earlier by my friend Jane, who, incidentally, is Korean. She prepared a Korean feast for me and four other friends in her small Ottawa apartment on Valentine’s Day – her Korean pancakes, or “jeon” would become legendary in our circles. She dazzled us with her chopstick skillz, and left us in awe of her flawless ability to converse with her mom in two languages, when she called home to ask a question about one of the recipes. “Jane, it’s probably very early in Korea,”  I reminded her as she picked up the phone. “Don’t be stupid,” she reminded me back, “My parents live in Yellowknife.

Fun fact: According to a 2011 census, the total number of Koreans living in Yellowknife is 30.

There is no shortage of Korean food in London – it’s like, a thing. All of the hipsters are eating it! Well, they’re eating a hybrid of American and Korean street food which is mighty, mighty tasty. Some of the most popular Korean food traders right now include Kimchinary (otherwise known as Korean tacos otherwise known as the best idea ever) and Busan BBQ, a cross between Texas and Seoul (or Pyongyang) in a burger.

There are at least three reliable choices for a good bibimbap near my office – I eat Korean food a fair bit now, thanks to Jane. The aptly named Bibimbap in Soho is a good spot for beginners. My favourite part is the rice crust at the bottom of the bowl.

The one Korean delicacy I hadn’t had the pleasure of trying before my current culinary journey was Korean barbecue, or gogigui, which means simply meat + roasting. I love Asian languages – the literal translation of the Chinese word for popcorn, for example, is exploding rice flower. They said it like it is, which is a quality I like in a nation.

Usually prepared on a charcoal grill built in to your table, I wasn’t 100% sure that in the UK this was allowed for health and safety reasons, but what the hey?

Myung Ga in Soho was chocablock at 7 pm on a Monday night. The first thing I noticed when we arrived was that the only table left was the one that I had booked – night saved! The second thing was that all the other diners were Korean. I took this as an excellent sign, until the table next to ours just wouldn’t stop eating which diverted the waiter’s attention away from you know, me.

We decided to order a mix of gogigui and other mains and small dishes. For the barbecue which, to the regulator’s delight, was of the less traditional variety – gas vs. charcoal, we chose two beef dishes and one chicken – the kalbi (beef ribs), bulgogi (thinly sliced beef) and dakgui, or “chicken marinated for the BBQ so that the weird girl who doesn’t like beef can eat.” To start, we ordered some fried tofu and kimchi jeon – Jane’s old staple, the Korean pancake, prepared with kimchi – if I said kimchi was a staple of the Korean diet, I’d be vastly underestimating its importance. Did you know that the average Korean eats approximately 40 pounds of kimchi every year? They also say “kimchi” instead of “cheese” when taking photographs. It’s very high in fibre, and low in fat.

Just in case this wasn’t enough, we ordered a portion of dak galbi – “chicken specially prepared in a Korean way with spicy sauce” – and bibim naengmyeon, a dish of cold buckwheat noodles in a hot sauce.

The food was delivered in an orderly fashion, beginning with the small dishes and the non-barbecue chicken; based on my limited experience (being Jane and less than six hours in Seoul) Koreans are nothing if not extremely efficient. The jeon, predictably, was delicious, although disappeared mysteriously quickly. The chicken specially prepared in a Korean way with spicy sauce was not in the least bit spicy; coated in a syrupy red sauce, it was undeniably sweet, but ravishingly so. My teeth will forgive me tomorrow, I promised myself.

Once this first stage of our meal was complete, the waiter arrived to turn on our grill. With a flick of a switch, the first small platter of beef was a-sizzling. We were brought a bowl full of lettuce – I wasn’t allowed to put this on the barbecue (but everything goes on the barbecue) but instead was to use it a wrapper for the meat, like so:

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“Like a taco!” I exclaimed with delight. Tacos are my favourite thing ever.

While the plates of meat were somewhat small and once again a little on the sweet side, and the noodles, when they arrived, a bit on the awkward side to slurp, I would consider this a very fun and intimate experience to share with good friends. And, a learning experience : one, I did not know about the technique of cutting meat up with scissors. This is genius. Two – tinder! For a girl who has been in a relationship for more than six years, this was news to me. For a married woman out for dinner with her girlfriends, this dating app turned out to be the equivalent of the iPad game for cats – “all the fun of your cat chasing a laser pointer, without any of the work.”

Massive apologies to Rosie. I hope the guy without teeth doesn’t contact you again.

The verdict: Definitely a successful evening, but maybe more so because of my friend’s willingness to let me accept and reject her potential future soulmates on her mobile. At £16 a head (without alcohol) I thought this was a pretty good value meal; that said, I imagine you can find good value barbecue elsewhere with bigger portions, and less sugar.

If a Korean meal isn’t enough for you, the London Korean Film Festival is on until November 12th. If you happen to be reading this whilst currently IN Korea – Paktor is the South-East Asian version of Tinder. I kid you not – good luck!

Need to know:

Myung Ga Restaurant

1 Kingly Street

020 7734 8220

Nearest tube: Oxford Circus or Picadilly Circus

Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 12pm-3pm, 5:30pm-11 pm, Sunday 530 pm-1030 pm

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Excellent restaurant downstairs

Following on the theme from my last post – where Julia Roberts doesn’t get enough to eat in Bali because she ate too much in Italy and had to buy new pants, I was very much delighted last week to come to the conclusion that the time had come for me, too, to buy new pants. Like many other brides-to-be, two months before my wedding and I have quit the gym and put myself on a strict diet of carbohydrates and cookies.

Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen in most cosmopolitan cities. Pizza, pasta, garlic bread, cheese. Wine, throw in some more cheese and maybe a Peroni – I’m a happy lady. But truth be told, most of the time, one bowl of pasta, as satisfying as it may be, tastes the same as the next. Zizzi, Prezzo, Strada, Spaghetti House (ew, seriously) – hearty yes, good value definitely, but a quality meal which transports me to a land where the sun shines brightly over vast vineyards and the modest yet romantic olive-skinned son of the local milkman wins the heart of the fashionista daughter of the regional mafia boss and, most importantly, where FOOD means BUSINESS – probably not.

Le Marche is one of the many (20) regions in Italy that I didn’t know existed. I’ve been to Italy once – to Venice, as an exchange student, when I was fifteen. We stayed in a converted convent, drank a lot of contraband alcohol, and played mean tricks on the kids who fell asleep first. It wasn’t exactly the cultural experience that I imagine having there today and I spent a good chunk of my time being terrified of pigeons pooping on me.  The only thing I learned how to say in Italian was: “Could I please have two scoops of coffee ice cream in a cone.” I ate only pizza (all I could afford) and drank a lot of wine and Fanta because both were cheaper than water.

It’s not even a fact, you know, that pizza was invented in Italy; the ancient Greeks lay claim to this too.

For more common stereotypes about Italy and Italians that may or may not be true, click here.

Rossodisera on Monmouth Street features in my new favourite book, Secret London: Unusual Bars and Restaurants – you will probably see further entries from this guide in future blog posts. The owners, Igor Iacopini and Samuele Ciaralli, come from Le Marche, which is on the eastern side of Central Italy, incidentally – and have done no less than transform the basement of an English deli into their own little slice of Italia in Londra.

From the outside, Rossodisera looks like your average deli/sandwich shop come tourist trap in Covent Garden. It is a sandwich shop, yes, and it is also in Covent Garden, but beyond the meat counter and down a narrow flight of stairs is the “excellent restaurant” itself – a tiny, warm, inviting (did I say tiny?) space full of hungry Italians looking for a taste of home. OK, so there was one table of loud Americans. We’re talking theatre district, after all.

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The room is tastefully designed to resemble an Italian country house and is decorated using actual stone from the actual owner’s actual father’s actual house. I forgot that I’d never been to real Italy (having concluded that Venice doesn’t count, sorry Venetians and your blinds) before I could even begin to remember that, in fact, I had.

We ordered the obligatory selezione di formaggi  to start, which arrived on a slice of olive tree from Le Marche. We were served two hard cheeses and two soft – what they were exactly I couldn’t tell you, the waitress had a pretty thick accent from, you guessed it, Italy – paired with confiture and a beautiful clear honey. We also ordered the cheapest bottle of red wine on the wine list – we have no reservations about looking cheap – and it more than did the trick.

We both chose pasta for our main dishes. I chose the orecchiette rossodisera – a small, oval-shaped pasta with a generous serving of extra virgin olive oil, soft ricotta cheese, sundried tomatoes and fresh basil. Not to detract in any way from how nice the sauce was, but I really like this pasta shape because it looks like little ears. In fact, I would wager that the direct translation for orecchiette is little ears. I’m not even going to bother looking this one up.

Duncan ordered the chitarrina sibilla – a homemade egg pasta with a cream and truffle sauce, a roulade of pork belly direct from La Marche,  mushrooms and ‘scorzone’ truffle shavings.

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Now, my other half is not one to dish out praise lightly.

“This is the best pasta I’ve had in years,” he exclaimed. I couldn’t have agreed more; made fresh in-house with great quality ingredients, this really gave new meaning to the word homemade.

When the waitress came to clear our plates, Duncan was quick to let her know that this was, in fact, “the best pasta he’d ever had.” I was very close to suggesting we order another plate each, or move to Italy. (Dunc – if you’re reading this – is this an option?)

Sitting next to me while I write this, Duncan says:

“It was the dog’s bollocks. Quote me, will you?”

You can’t get any more Italian than that.

Another good option for authentic Italian food is La Polenteria on Old Compton Street. I don’t know why so many people are adverse to polenta. Maybe because it looks a little bit unappetizing – like a large, creamy plate of baby food. Sure, it’s stodgy – but when prepared properly it can be a light, fluffy and extremely healthy alternative to rice (unless, like me, you enjoy covering it with cheese).

Polenta is actually a cornmeal boiled into a porridge, which you can either eat straight up or fry (yup), grill or  bake. In North America, we eat this with maple syrup. Then again, in North America we eat everything with maple syrup, the greatest thing ever to come from trees.

I visited La Polenteria one rainy lunch break in April, with two girlfriends who both opted for the restaurant’s very economical lunch deal (two courses for under a tenner) while I selected a salad of fresh greens, grilled polenta, sundried tomatoes and scamorza. I had food envy instantaneously – Harriet’s vegan caponata and Stella’s pollo alla romana consisted of a generous (maybe too generous for lunchtime) helping of fluffly polenta basically smothered in ratatouille and chicken regu, respectively.

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OK, so it was a killer salad.

Historically, polenta was served as a peasant food in Europe, but don’t let that put you off – hipsters eat this now. This is a nice little spot for a cheap and cheerful lunch of either a top salad (I got over my envy once the girls started letting me pick off their plates) or something a bit different – polenta doesn’t deserve such a bad rep.

Need to know:

Rossodisera

5 Monmouth Street

020 7240 3683

Nearest tube: Covent Garden

Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 8 am-11 pm, Saturday 930 am-1130 pm, Sunday 930 am-1030 pm

http://www.rossodisera.co.uk

Reservations recommended

La Polenteria

64 Old Compton Street

020 7434 3617

Nearest tube: Leicester Square

Opening hours: Mon-Thurs 830 am-1130 pm, Friday 830am-12 am Saturday 12pm-12 am, Sunday 12 pm-11 pm

http://www.lapolenteria.com