Jaime had come to Korea a year ago from Canada. She believed that she was escaping something in Toronto- some ennui that had arrested her progression in life- but soon discovered when she landed in Seoul that she was really running toward her roots. I had always known her to be passionate about food, and so, to her own delight, she had quickly come around to seeing that food and being Korean were often synonymous. Like most great cultures, all the important Korean rituals had food at the center of it.
Recently, before the music video “Gangnam Style” went into the stratosphere, she was invited to a concert held by PSY. She sent me some photos she took as a kind of inside joke.
When I asked her if Gangnam, like most of the world’s wealthy districts, produced much of anything other than shameless exhibition of wealth and style, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “In Gangnam, even food is fashion. Here today, gone tomorrow.” But there were, in her mind, a few places that had stood the test of time and she knew that PSY had been known to hang out in some of them.
But before heading to Gangnam, we had breakfast at a high-end food court in her hood. I wanted to really understand what we were going to do with the back part of the restaurant in Toronto. A take-out counter space, with possibly ten seats for quick sit-ins: that’s all I really knew. We visited two very popular chains, both capitalizing on the innate aesthetic beauty and health benefits of what has been exported as Korea’s most popular dish: bibimbap. I always felt this was poorly executed in Toronto, especially in its fast food incarnation, and wanted to see how the Koreans did it effectively. Some revelations lay ahead, beginning with packaging at Babi Dabi Da. What was unique about this presentation was that it had two layers to it. The top layer was filled with the toppings and the bottom, fuller box, filled with warm rice (three varieties to choose) from a machine upon order.
At Bibigo, the focus was on the easy delivery of choices to the customer and focus on the health benefits: they offered choices of four kinds of rice, four proteins, and four sauces. Some of the most delicious vegetables I had ever tasted in bibimbap: clean, lightly marinated, ingredients driven by quality.
Both places offered a delicious option of chilled or hot soup on the side:
It was at Bibigo that I bumped into PSY for the first time during my stay. Apparently, he liked bibimbap too…
I was sure we would bump into each other again. Until then, more food discoveries to be made.
My friend took me to a gourmet food court close to Gangnam. There, in an open kiosk, a fabulously successful Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant, VATOS, owned by three young Korean-Americans, offered up their version of Mexican soul food, Korean style. Tacos with spicy shrimp and pulled pork, and a full serving of braised pork kimchi french fries had become some of their signature items. After my own stint this past summer as one of six chefs at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre’s Taco Takedown, I knew how difficult it was to pull of balanced flavours when approaching tacos from the Korean side. I asked the staffer there if he could tell me how to say, “This is the greatest taco I have ever tasted!” in Spanish. He shrugged his shoulders and told me he had never been to Mexico and therefore didn’t speak “Mexican”. I cannot tell you how the kimchi in the french fries was prepared because it would give the secret away, a secret that was simple and wildly innovative at the same time. I would test it in our restaurant kitchen when I got back.
From there, to a concept that had become ubiquitous in Seoul over the past three years, SCHOOL FOOD. They took food off the streets and into legitimate upscale malls. Bold flavours, spicy, earthy, with moments of finesse- these dishes were not ashamed of its roots- like the proud peasant who marries into royalty.
Then off to see friends at the best short rib dumpling joint in the city, MAPO MANDOO, in the center of the Mapo district. Mom-and-pop places like this always make me proud of being professionally involved with food. It was about finding a place in a dish for that single most important ingredient: love. Hard to do, which is why most dishes never achieve that state of near-perfection that these dumplings did.
Finally, Gangnam. More plastic surgery offices per capita than anywhere else in the world (but that’s another blog). I could feel PSY’s presence everywhere and, occasionally, calling out to me.
It’s a place of big egos, big cars and even bigger coffee shops.
Of the four restaurants we went to (I will write about this elsewhere), two of them impressed, the other two flopped. There was truly little by way of originality or style. Overall, the experience was profoundly ordinary. I had already accumulated great food experiences in other districts, so Gangnam would have had to be over-the-top. It fell short, reminding me of so many other upscale districts in North America- all bluster and glitter with little substance. There was one cafe that served simple and delicious churros and great coffee- the best we’ve had- but the service was slower than the Ferraris prowling down the streets. Generally disappointed with Gangnam (and with PSY nowhere to be seen) I was excited by the prospect of some great meals in other districts as night fell. We made our way to Itaewon (Victory Town), where, only until 3 years ago, it was still the red light district for America soldiers and foreigners. Once curfew was placed upon the soldiers by the higher-ups because of conflagrations of violence, Itaewon worked rapidly to put itself on the culinary map of Seoul. Some of the biggest names in Korean food, as well as interesting concepts coming out of the U.S., moved in. The streets were booming with activity, the energy was buoyant, and there was lightness in the air. We went into a well-known izakaya, MUNDARE, famous for its yakitori, and we were not disappointed. More good recipes for the future main part of the restaurant.
The only disappointment came from Jaime when I mistook a carton of sake for milk. It was an innocent mistake…Our final destination for the night would be my next “Aha!” moment. Korean BBQ restaurants in Toronto are executed without much thought. Even as the chefs bring in the best cuts of beef, prepare them with exquisite detail, their creations are dropped off at the table and the customer left to their own devices. Two things happen as a result of this. The product, now cooked by an inexperienced guest, is not the chef’s creation (concern for their safety has people always overcooking their meats); secondly, people sit forever at the table, leisurely having their meals without any pressure to turn over the table. Every seat is prime real estate for a restaurateur, especially during the thick of things between 7pm-10pm. Hence the illusion that Korean BBQ restaurants are busy and the owners are laughing their way to the bank; the truth is that they only manage to get in one seating. At MAPLE TREE, the owners (from Toronto, we learned), resolved this problem. Within 2 minutes of ordering, all the ingredients are brought to the table. The drinks are there within 4 minutes, the charcoal grill, already in full heat, is set in the middle of the table. The server works four tables and is at your table in 2-minute intervals to grill your meat for you. You’re in-and-out within an hour and, as a guest, you feel well taken care of and having had it the chef’s way with your meal. The interior is elegant but simple. The charcoal does not emit gaseous fumes and the hoods are kept right over the grill. As a consequence, there is no need for you to go home, throw your clothes in the garbage can, and soak in the tub for hours to get rid of the smell of charred meat on your clothes and body. Exactly what Korean BBQ restaurants should be. The only problem: the server was so busy running tables, she had little time to upsell wines (the list was very small). The most common pairing of soju and beer (so-be) with beef is a match made in an alleyway.
All in all, a day full of treats. By the time it had ended, I was ten pounds heavier, and my head full of ideas. I walked down a street to find a cab and gave a lot of thought to important things. See…But then I heard an unmistakable voice calling out to me, snapping me out of my reverie. There was a time when I used to think that you went in search of Gangnam Style, only to discover that Gangnam Style is really searching for you…