Tosokchon

Address: Gyeongbokgung
Directions: Take exit 2 of Gyeongbokgung, walk straight for about 5 minutes. It’s on a little side alleyway on the left. Just look out for the crowds.

We would have put the address of the restaurants we’ve been to, this included, but it seems that in Korea addresses are completely and utterly useless. There is little method in the naming or numbering of streets. To begin with, there are very few signs labeling street names, and many streets don’t even have names at all. Buildings and houses have numbers, but they are assigned according to when they were built, so building number 4 can be next to building number 91. Knowing the address of the place you’re going to is hardly ever useful – just consider an address like this: 104 Itaewondong, Yongsan-gu. This means the 104th building in Itaewon neighbourhood, in the Yongsan district, and good luck to you finding that. That’s why we’ve given directions instead, and this is also the way locals describe how to find their locations.

Ginseng is extremely popular in Korea, and there are an abundance of shops selling ginseng and ginseng products. In fact, as you walk around the streets of Seoul you’ll probably be able to smell the ginseng facial products that so many Koreans love to use all around you. It’s not the most appealing of scents to us, and neither is it our most favourite thing to eat in the world, but since we’re in the land of ginseng-crazed people, we thought it was fitting to have a meal of ginseng, just for the heck of it. Tosokchon is apparently the best place in Seoul for such a meal, so for potentially our one and only ginseng meal in Korea, we decided to just go for the best.

It was just before noon when we reached the restaurant, and a queue had already formed. The restaurant is able to accommodate a lot of customers, but is very popular among tour groups, so it gets full very quickly. Walk in customers have no choice but to wait in line, and wait in line we did.

The menu is extremely simple, and it seems that everyone just orders the same thing, so we got ourselves 2 portions of Chicken Stew with Ginseng as well. They were served with a shot of ginseng wine, which was pretty strong, and our server told us that we could pour it into our stew as well, if we didn’t like drinking it straight. The chicken was very well cooked – tender and juicy, and was stuffed with some glutinous rice and assorted healthy stuff like gingko nuts etc. The rice had a very strong ginseng taste, which we didn’t like very much, but otherwise was quite bland. There is a little pot containing salt that we were encouraged to add liberally to our stew, which was definitely needed to help enhance the flavour of the dish. The stew itself isn’t very ginsengy, but is quite one dimensional, so after a while it got a bit boring. We had to turn to the kimchi to give us some flavour and excitement.

Overall, not the best meal we had in Korea, but that’s not their fault – we’re just not big on ginseng, or anything that’s herbal for that matter. We can totally see why people would just love eating here at Tosokchon, and will definitely recommend it to those who like ginseng, or to those who are interested to reap the benefits of ginseng in a more accessible way. For us, we’ll much rather have some bulgogi, or barbecue anytime.

 

Service: 6/10
Food: 6/10 (but if you like ginseng, you’ll probably love this place)

Noryangjin Fish Market

Address: Noryangjin
Directions: Exit the subway station and follow the smell of fish. You’ll have to cross over a bridge to a short, old building. Signs are all in Korean, so really just follow your nose.

Noryangjin Fish Market is huge. Think Billingsgate Market 4 or 5 times over, sprawling with stalls selling a wide array of the most amazing seafood you can think of, most of which are still alive and swimming around in their tanks. Do as the locals do – pick a stall and select the seafood that appeals to you, then take your catch of the day to the kitchen (the stall owners will probably point you to the kitchen affiliated to their stall) where they’ll prepare your seafood in whatever way you want. If you’d rather not see your meal when it’s still alive, you can just go upstairs to any of the (more expensive) restaurants where you can order from a menu. But there’s really no point kidding yourself and paying a premium for basically the same thing – ultra fresh seafood, so fresh it was still alive just before you sat down.

While on our way to Noryangjin we had made a list of what we wanted to eat for lunch, so when we got there we basically cut to the chase and wasted no time wondering around. We bought a platter of sashimi, some prawns, 2 blue crabs and some squid, and were led down a little (and very wet) alleyway, into a restaurant in the basement, where we took off our shoes, sat down, and waited eagerly for our seafood feast.

The sashimi was very fresh, and a really big portion for USD$15 as well. We would have definitely preferred to have salmon, but it seems that none of the stalls do salmon sashimi. Our mystery fishes had some really delicate flavours, and there was so much sashimi that we ended up playing around with our sauces, and realized that ground garlic mixed in with soy sauce is a really good dip for our sashimi platter.

The first dish to arrive was sannakji. This was the dish K most wanted to have. It’s an incredibly simple dish. The recipe would go something like this: chop up the live squid into small pieces, put it on a plate and serve immediately. What appears in front of you is the most amazing sight – a plate of chopped up squid, still wriggling around in the throes of death. It was just extraordinary. The suction pads on the tentacles are truly working overtime, sticking to the plate as if the squid were struggling not to be eaten. When you attempt to eat a piece, you can actually feel the suction pads attach themselves to the insides of your mouth.

It was a bizarre experience eating something that is still ‘alive’. In actual fact, the squid is most definitely dead. The wriggling pieces are just the effects of rigor mortis, and not a demonstration of how much pain the squid is in. This was definitely a novelty dish. The squid itself doesn’t taste of much, and after the whole plate of sashimi and now this sannakji, we needed some cooked food badly.

The next dish to come was definitely cooked. It was our prawns, lightly salted and grilled. They smelt fantastic, as grilled prawns always do, but were completely overcooked. Pity.

After quite a long wait, our crabs were ready to be served. We had asked the kitchen to cook our crabs in a spicy soup, and it was lovely. The soup had the fresh sweet taste of crab, and was seasoned with a very good amount of spice to give our tastebuds a really nice kick. The crabs were delicate and wonderful, with a nice amount of crab roe to enhance the flavour even more.

Overall this was a great experience. We need places like these in Singapore, where you can be guaranteed fresh seafood all the time. The kitchen charges a small amount to prepare your food, and for the kimchi, rice, sauces and vegetables. It’s a great way to gorge yourself silly on seafood, without leaving central Seoul at all!

Service: 6.5/10
Food: 7/10

Bon Bibimbap

Address: Jongno 3 (sam) ga
Directions: Take exit 15 of Jongno 3 (sam) ga, and walk straight until you reach a traffic light. Cross over to the other side of the road and turn left. Bon Bibimbap is a few meters down this street.

We’ve been to Gogung and have had ultra traditional Korean food. Bon Bibimbap serves a very commercial, modern take on traditional Korean dishes like the classic noodle soup dish and bibimbap. There are a couple of branches of Bon Bibimbap across Seoul.

We ordered a spicy seafood noodle soup, a bibimbap with pork, and some dumplings. The dumplings were delicious – fresh and tasty, but not as delicate as the mandu dumplings in Myeongdong Kyoja.

The bibimbap was quite different from the one we had in Gogung. The flavours in the bibimbap in Bon Bibimbap are very similar to the ones we’ve had in Singapore, and in Biwon in London. Unfortunately, it comes with a fried egg, instead of a raw egg, as we like in our bibimbap.

 

Our spicy seafood noodle soup was very nice. The broth was very spicy and had some nice flavours. The noodles were clearly handmade and extremely slippery and silky smooth. Unfortunately, the seafood was a little overcooked, and so the baby squid pieces were tough and chewy.

This is a place where you’ll be given a nice introduction to Korean food, but it’s not really somewhere where you’ll get truly authentic food. The mains all come with a set consisting of some assorted kimchi, soup and this strange sweet drink (which we didn’t really like), and none of the flavours in those assorted kimchi were too bold, so it won’t scare away any first time kimchi eaters. Unfortunately, we like our kimchi with some kick, so this isn’t quite the right place for us.

Service: 6/10
Food: 6/10

Jangeorang

Address: Hongik University
Directions: Go out exit 5 of Hongik University Station and make a left, and then take the second right. Walk to the main road and take a left and walk up the main intersection where you’ll see the main entrance of Hongdae University. Take a left and walk until you reach the Samjin building. It’s right across the street.

This restaurant serves nothing but freshwater eel, known as jangeo in Korean. Koreans believe that jangeo gives strength and vitality to the eater, and is especially popular hence among men. We weren’t there to test that out, but to genuinely just have a meal of barbecued eel, as it’s one of K’s favourite things to eat.

This is a very popular restaurant and is frequented by many celebrities, judging by the many Polaroid pictures of famous Koreans pasted all over the restaurant. We ordered their most popular dish, the barbecued eel done 3 ways – soy sauce, chili barbecue and lightly salted. While waiting, we had a little snack of deep fried jangeo bone chips. These were surprisingly good. We were given a basket of fried eel bones, literally, and they were crunchy and crispy, slightly fishy, but great fun to munch on. It’s also an amazing way to make use of every possible part of the eel; now, if only someone would find a way to do something like this to chicken bones and crab shells, for example.

No Korean meal is ever complete without a spread of kimchi and side dishes. We were just wondering if we were going to get any kimchi in this meal, since it’s not exactly Korean Korean, when our kimchi and side dishes appeared right in front of us. Some of them were really outstanding – the tofu dish was silky and really got our appetites going, and the miso/bean soup was extremely tasty.

The eel takes about 25 minutes to cook, and when it arrived we just couldn’t wait to jump in. However, gorging yourself silly with eel is the worst thing to ever do. Eel must be savoured and not gorged. We found that the longer the eel was left on the grill the better it tasted so it gave us all the more reason to eat as slowly as possible. We’ve never had eel this way. It was lovely being able to taste the natural flavour of the eel as unlike the Japanese version, the eel here doesn’t come with a lot of sauce that may overpower the delicate taste of the flesh. All 3 flavours were wonderful, and went very well with the lettuce wrap that is so typical of Korean cuisine. This was one of our favourite meals in Seoul so far.

As a side note, service here in Korea has been excellent. Everyone (in general) is so polite and gentle that we kind of feel obliged to behave in that manner too. We met 2 Americans while on our way to the Green Tea Plantation in Boseong who were on a teaching programme in some local schools, and they were also ridiculously polite and kept bowing, and were just simply unnaturally courteous. It’s a truly bizarre phenomenon.

 

Service: 7/10
Food: 8/10

Can’t read Korean, no idea what it’s called

Address: Jongno 3 (sam) ga
Directions: From exit 15 of Jongno 3 (sam) ga, walk straight and take the first left at Arena. Then take the first right. The restaurant will be on your left, directly across the road from 7 Eleven. It’s opened only for dinner, and stays open till 6am in the morning, believe it or not.

Guide books and websites may give you all the wonderful tried and tested recommendations for authentic and good places to eat at, but perhaps the best way to experience the cuisine of a country is to eat where the locals do. We’ve passed this restaurant a couple of times while walking back to our hotel and it has always been very busy, and full of locals. Today, we went to the Green Tea Plantation in Boseong, and had practically nothing to eat for the entire day (the shop selling green tea bibimbap at the plantation that we were so looking forward to having was closed, so we had just some instant noodles from 7 Eleven for the whole day) and were absolutely starving, so this was the natural first choice for dinner.

Nobody speaks English in the restaurant, and the menu is printed only in Korean and mounted on a little signboard on the wall. After struggling for a few minutes with trying to read from the Anglicized pronunciation guide provided at the back of our Lonely Planet, we realized with great relief that our server could speak Mandarin! Thank God for our bilingual Singaporean education. So we ended up ordering a portion of marinated beef (galbi), marinated pork, and a bowl of cold noodles.

To summarise in 1 word: AWESOME. We were the only non-Koreans in the restaurant, and it was like we had stumbled upon a well kept secret. We were extremely well taken care of by all the servers, who literally wouldn’t stop bringing us more soup, or more lettuce, or more kimchi, or help tell us which was the best combination of garlic and sauce or rice to wrap in the lettuce. The hospitality was generous and seriously overwhelming.

Plus, the food was really good. The meats were extremely well marinated and contained just the right amount of fats to provide that wonderful caramelization when cooked over the hot coals.

The cold noodles were also extremely good. We’ve had this dish in Biwon in London, and weren’t blown away then. We really wanted to try it again in Korea, where we would hopefully get the real deal, and oh yes we did. The noodles were soft and silky smooth, and there was a lovely tangy flavour in the icy cold beef broth, which was the perfect companion dish to the smoky salty barbecued meats.

This is one place we will definitely be returning to have another meal at before we leave Korea. So far we’ve been having such a good time in Seoul that we have cancelled a night’s accommodation in Jeonju to remain in Seoul for more sightseeing and eating. Plus, the 3 hour train ride to Jeonju isn’t exactly our idea of a good time. So, with the additional day-ish in Seoul we’ll definitely be able to go back to this restaurant for another awesome carnivorous feast.  

Service: 7.5/10
Food: 8/10

Samkim

Address: Myeongdong
Directions: This is just next to Gogung.

After our lunch at Gogung, we noticed this little restaurant that was attracting quite a crowd. We made a note to return someday to check it out, and ended up returning that very same day for dinner!

We ordered a platter of various pork cuts to barbecue and a kimchi stew. The kimchi appetizer that was brought to us was a little tangy and we weren’t sure that we liked it as much as the other kimchis we’ve had so far in Korea. However, their kimchi stew, which was made using that very same sour-ish kimchi, was just perfect. Somehow when transformed into a stew, the tangyness really works, and creates a wonderful broth that is just irresistible. Just as a side note, we are just wowed by the fact that every place makes their own version of kimchi, and no two kimchis from different restaurants ever taste the same. It’s just remarkable to see the pride everyone takes in their own kimchi.

When our pork platter was brought to us, we were slightly disappointed. The meats were just simply sliced and presented without being marinated beforehand, and we were convinced that there wasn’t going to be a lot of flavour at all in those meats. However, we were so wrong. After the meat has been barbecued, you’re supposed to use a piece of lettuce, with some condiments and sauces, to wrap the meat and eat it as a little spring roll, if you will. This little parcel-y thing was seriously good. We found that the lack of marinade allowed us to taste the fresh, natural flavours of the meat, and with all the various condiments and sauces, we could create that perfect bite with our simple, unassuming slices of pork.

Service: 7/10
Food: 7/10

Gogung

Address: Myeongdong
Directions from website: From exit 10 of Myeongdong Station (subway line no.4) walk to the right of Hotel Sejong until you reach a T-intersection. Turn left and walk about 60m.

Gogung is renowned for its Jeonju Bibimbap. It’s supposed to be a really nutritious dish, full of vegetables and some meat. It’s reported to be the best place to try traditional Korean food in Seoul.

The menu is quite simple as usual, with a couple of traditional Korean dishes that we’ve grown to love while studying in London and eating at our favourite Korean restaurants there. If you want the full Korean experience, you can splurge on this massive feast fit for a King, and order a ton of sides with your bibimbap. It might come as a surprise that we didn’t order this king-sized meal, but went for a more modest selection of dishes (modest being a relative term here). We chose to have the Jeonju Bibimbap, the Jap Chae and a Seafood Pancake.

As with all Korean restaurants, a variety of appetizers were quickly brought to our table. We really liked the Kimchi – full of flavour, but definitely less powerful as the one we had in Myeongdong Kyoja yesterday. We also liked this Broccoli and Tofu appetizer that we’ve never seen before. There was a creamy-ish sauce that was drizzled over the dish, and we just loved that it was light and irresistible. Also, the texture of the tofu was just phenomenal. There was also an octopus appetizer that A wouldn’t touch, but it was chewy and slimy but oh-so-yummy.

The Jap Chae came first. We love the mushrooms in this dish, but overall we felt that this dish lacked flavour and seasoning. It was slightly sweet, which was quite surprising, but beyond that we wished that it had more salt and sesame oil. (To be honest we very much prefer the version at Bi Won, but we’re hesitant to say it because on so many accounts, this version at Gogung should be far more authentic than the one at Bi Won, so we’re divided on this.)

Next was the Seafood Pancake. This was a lot more eggy than the one we’re used to, and it had seriously shit loads of seafood and scallions. We really like it that the seafood is the focus of the dish, and the pancake serves just as a means of presenting the seafood. In other Seafood Pancakes we’ve had, it’s always been a case of the pancake being the focus of the dish. Here we really taste all the flavours of the seafood and scallions.

Our Bibimbap came soon after, and it was served in a brass bowl, and not a hot pot (because that’s a different version of bibimbap, and not the Jeonju bibimbap). This was a very different bibimbap from what we’ve ever eaten. Here you well and truly understand why people consider bibimbap to be a healthy dish. There is just a little sauce served with the dish to provide just the right amount of flavour, and there is hardly any oil in the bowl at all. You really taste all the individual components of the dish – eggs, sesame seeds, bean sprouts etc, and they all come together in a lovely medley of fresh flavours. We really love this version of bibimbap.

Finally at the end of the meal, a complimentary (they never stop giving free things here in Seoul we swear) sour plum soup was presented to us. This was the perfect refreshing, detoxing palate cleanser to end off the meal.

Overall, we really liked our meal at Gogung. It is a really good place to re-discover Korean food for its fresh, clean flavours. We love the home-y feel of the food served here, and it’s also highly recommended by the official tourism site, so there, you can’t go wrong by checking this place out!

Service: 7/10
Food: 7/10