Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bliss, Itaewon 블리스 이태원

I had been giving this place a miss for awhile, because it's usually always full of boring looking people eating the mediocre pasta dishes here and drinking lightly. I didn't realize though, that Bliss has a decent drinkable champagne and sparkling selection. They have about 8-10 different bottles that range from a bottle of Cava for 48,000W + 10% VAT to Dom Perignon 2000, which is a truly great bottle of champagne that is great for drinking nowadays, that goes for about 450 bones.
I'm on a champagne kick lately, so we dropped in on successive days last weekend and popped some Veuve Clicquots and some Moet, both the Rose and Imperial. Bottles are about 160,000W per, plus 10% VAT, so you can get 3 bottles of Veuve Clicquot for the price of one bottle of Dom; if I am gonna drop 5 bills I think I want to get to feeling good, so I go for quantity here.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tomatoes; ie. why food in Korea is so bad

Rant time; how many cuisines of the world rely heavily on tomatoes? A lot, right? Obviously not Korean food, for reasons I will explain, but yes, a lot of food just wouldn't be good without some good tomatoes. Tin tomatoes will get you only so far food-wise; your salads and sandwiches though will live and die by the tomato.

Imagine a country where all of the slicing tomatoes they sold were completely flavorless, neither sour nor sweet, devoid of tang, mushy, pink, and generally a disgrace to the name. Well, guess what, I live here. Why Korean-grown tomatoes are so piss poor, I will never know, but the only Korean food I've seen them applied to is Kongguksoo, a cold soy bean noodle dish, and they are an arbitrary addition at that; the only other way Koreans really eat slicing tomatoes is by serving them in wedges, sprinkled with sugar, at bars and in brothels and like establishments. You have the different Chinese dishes that use tomatoes, like the egg dishes, etc, but they neither have those here in Korea nor do the Chinese disrespect their tomatoes so badly to have a problem like this.

For those who doubt, I lined up a pair of Kinokuniya tomatoes bought in Japan (because Kinokuniya produce lasts twice as long as regular supermarket produce, sup Murakami), and a pair of Korean 'chal' tomatoes; of slicing tomato varieties in Korea, there is pretty much only this kind, and then the fully ripened 'wansook' version of this same tomato. As you can see, the prices are similar; 2700-something won for the Korean ones and 258 yen for the Japanese ones. The coloring is obviously different.

As you slice into them, you notice the differences immediately; Korean tomatoes have very little seed and liquid, and have a huge core section. The Japanese tomatoes are similar to what we know in the western world, as well as most everywhere else, as a typical (albeit a really good example of a) slicing tomato. The flavor is full and deep of tomato, good sour balanced with some sweetness (Japanese produce is all very deep and rich in flavor and natural sweetness) and texture is nigh perfect. Perfect on a sandwich, on a burger, in wedges or pieces for a salad.

If Korean restaurants, particularly the Italians, the Middle Easterners, and all of these bandwagoneers claiming to be serious about making burgers and sandwiches care about the food they make, then they are going to really need to address this tomato thing (amongst many other things)...

Fanatic, I know, but definitely a sore point.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Japanese Pringles: because your Sour Cream and Onion is so previous level.

So, as it were, my house is a wonderland of Japanese snacks. One thing I always have in the pantry are Pringles, in flavors that you probably haven't eaten before, it's always a first for me too. Mentaiko flavor Pringles are not out of the question.

Here is a roundup of six Pringles JP flavors I've tried and was sober enough to remember snacking on: (there were more, but I can't remember them right now. I do remember a huge can of guacamole flavor and some french cheese flavor but I ate them before I could take a picture)

Ok, so from top to bottom, you have:

-usushio (lightly salted flavor)
-spicy chicken
-extreme mushroom
-extra pepper
-cheese carnival
-balsamic vinegar

Winner: extra pepper. Simple, yet delivers as promised. Great cracked pepper flavor that matches well with the artificial potato notes of your standard Pringle.

Loser: balsamic vinegar. This one didn't taste anything like its namesake. Salt and vinegar chips really do taste like vinegar, these barely tasted of anything. Disappointing.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ho Lee Chow, Itaewon; 호리차우, 이태원

Today was one of those cold, 'want to eat something now and don't need anything special' days. This, as we were standing in front of the Hamilton Hotel, complaining about being hungry. Luckily, this place is on the second floor of the Hamilton, and that was good for a Thursday lunch.

There's not a ton to say about this place, it's American Chinese food (actually to be technical, it's Canadian-Chinese food) by a couple of Korean-Canadian guys. While the food here is menu items you are probably familiar with if you are from North America (as we), you probably don't realize how genius this place is, even if you have been here before. We come here pretty often as it's convenient lunching for the crew.

The basic idea is this; two Korean-Canadian brothers (?, friends?) who've cut their teeth in Korean-owned Chinese restaurants in Canada (and obviously either made or courted attractive amounts of capital, capable of funding a hotel restaurant) move their act back to motherland Korea, dress it up with some smart but obvious branding ('Ho Lee Chow' really? inventive much?), and take a market all their own, despite how obvious and easy it may be, and still after all these years, no challengers have stepped forward. Why? I do not know. Many Koreans from North America can make a Chinese takeout menu's worth of food, and it's cheap to make. I am saying all of this because a lower-priced, more takeout or possibly delivery-friendly version of this kind of place would be welcome to some here. hint hint, money hungry people.
I've worked in marketing research before, and I know well enough that no proud Korean businessperson can trust anyone else's opinion enough to pay for it, so I am pretty sure that these guys had a pretty good seed of an idea and ran with it, and got big via luck, based on familiarity and good guessing; they have multiple locations throughout Korea, in pretty high-rent locations. What they themselves may not realize is that they're hitting their demographic straight in the kisser; you get a mix of hungry US Army guys in there, you get some mildly progressive Korean families just eating out, and you get Koreans who have positive memories of Chinese takeout from being overseas as students or something, or those who've not been overseas in that way but want to try it based on an aura in popular media, an image of white paper takeout boxes with wire handles. It's the same kind of success that brands like Honda achieved when they first entered the Korean market. You get all of the now-30 somethings who used to scoot about North American college towns in Honda Civics, with pleasant memories of their college days. While many other experiences these people have are inconsistent between locales, takeaway-style Chinese food is one of those things that many have experienced universally.

The food itself? Pretty shoddy, but what would you expect?

Food: 1.5/5
Ambience: 2/5
Service: 1.5/5

Recipe: Pho Rice Burger

Here is another one of my masterful ghetto foodstuff creations; the Pho Rice Burger. You get to have some Vietnamese flavor combined with Japanese food technology here, and that isn't a bad thing. Most stuff would probably be better with some Japanese food technology, to be honest. This ended up tasting honestly more like Pho than any actual Pho that is available in this country, and that is on one hand, sad, and on the other hand, pretty cool, I guess. I'm not gonna become the next oriental Ferran Adria anytime soon, but the overall flavor definitely says 'pho'....

Ok, so to reach the next level, you are going to need a lot of stuff. For those of you in Korea, none of this stuff isn't easy to find here, but guess what? It's not impossible. Itaewon Foreign Mart are your friends, people. It's where I purchased most of the stuff for this recipe.

Here is the literal cornucopia you will need to make this epic, next level meal:

-Sawtooth leaf herb (aka ngo gai, aka long coriander)
-regular cilantro
-Thai basil
-some Anaheim or similar peppers, preferably not Korean chunyang peppers, which have a thicker skin and different flavor profile
-a red onion
-a carrot, optional I guess

-iceberg lettuce

-some good flavorful ground beef
-an egg

-some short grain sticky rice
-a packet of pho soup base, the dry Pho buillon cubes would also work here

-some potato starch and S+P

1) make an herb slaw of the julienned vegetables in the first bar, and chiffonade the herbs, season with salt and pepper, lime juice, set aside

2) mix beef with a bit of the remaining minced onion, an egg to bind, and some chopped cilantro. Mix in a bit of the pho soup base and some S+P and then form patties, chill awhile.

3) cook short grain rice as usual, add some pho soup base to the cooking water, in proportion to the amount of rice in the cooker, according to the packet ingredients.

4) when rice is done, mix in some sriracha, give it a spoon or two of potato starch to bind, squeeze a little lime juice into the steamed rice, and then form some rice buns in a saran wrapped patty form. Carefully peel away the saran wrap, place into pan, and toast these buns over low heat in an ungreased nonstick fry pan, until both sides of each bun half have crisped and caramelized.

5) cook your pho burger patty to your liking, either in the same pan, or over a grill.

6) assemble the burger, with a bit of sriracha on the buns, some iceberg lettuce leaves, your burger patty, and some of the herb slaw.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chakraa, Itaewon; 샤크라, 이태원

There was an Indian curry trend here a number of years ago, where a few restaurants popped up and tried to cash in on burgeoning demand for (slightly) more authentic non-Korean dining; Mogul, Ashoka, and US Mania in Itaewon, Chakraa, originally from Haebangchon, Ganga Blue in the Seoul Finance Center, and some others. This was about 2002 or 2003, until 2005 or so.
Fast forward a few years, and seemingly half of Nepal moved in, started opening up their own curry houses, serving tandoori, naan, and their buttery curries, with menus looking much like their Indian counterparts. There opened a trio of Nepalese restaurants around Dongmyo serving up pretty decent curry for cheap, there is a few around Jongro, and then some more Indian places (I think) opened up near Hooker Hill in Itaewon.
This restaurant, Chakraa, as mentioned, started on the Haebangchon main drag; their original store is now occupied by a terrible pet store (more on this later) and Chakraa has since moved to Itaewon and expanded to multiple branches around Seoul and Kyunggi-do, with print ads claiming they are the foremost, or something along those lines.

Despite knowing about it for years, I went for the first time just recently, and unintentionally caught them on a buffet day, as I recall they serve a buffet on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We had gotten there in the late afternoon, and so the food on the buffet was fresh and not picked over at all, in fact we were the first ones to dig in. That is about the only way I can bring myself to eat buffet, so we did it, and it wasn't too bad. The lamb vindaloo was decent, they had a crispy vegetable salad with a nice tangy vinaigrette that I really liked, a couple of pieces of tandoori were included and brought out fresh from the kitchen, separately, and fresh naan was also delivered to our table intermittently. There were plenty of samosas and about five or six different curries on the line, plus rice and some raita and chutneys. 15,000W a head, so it was a decent enough eating experience for cheap.

Today, for two, we ate off the menu, and things were definitely a bit different. We habitually order up some samosas, half a tandoori chicken, some naan, and some curry, sometimes two curries if I feel like trying something out. Today, we ended up getting all of that, including regular naan, sesame naan, and tomato and cheese naan, and we got Aloo Gobi and Chicken Vindaloo, the latter being my favorite curry of all time. I spent a couple weeks in London in my younger days eating only chicken vindaloo and naan.

Being that the guys at Chakraa are from southern India, and that the lamb vindaloo I had before was decent, I was expecting good things and ended up really disappointed with tonight's meal. The chicken vindaloo sucked. It tasted sweet and overly tomato-ey; like it was ketchup and sauteed onions with curry powder. The Aloo Gobi was also pretty bad; I'm pretty sure I can cook better southern Indian than this and I've never been to the country. The Samosas were Samosas but their chutney was not good, the naan was dry and tough, and the tandoori was decent but nothing to talk about. The worst thing for me: I have asked them twice now if they could give me some cilantro on the side, because this is regularly available at almost all curry places in Seoul, and Chakraa's own advertising in all of the expat rags features a pretty good-looking bowl of curry topped in a mountain of fresh cilantro, and both times, they said they didn't have any. I called it cilantro, I called it coriander, I called it gosu, I called it pakchi, they didn't have it, apparently.
I might try the buffet again here at Chakraa, but ordering off the menu was a waste of money.

Food: 1/5
Ambiance: 1/5 (the steps up to the 2nd floor entrance reeked of toilet smell)
Service: 2/5 (we got complimentary bowls of Ottugi cream soup with some raw carrot scraps and chicken mixed in, I appreciated the gesture, but not the soup)

Com Binh Dan, Sinseol-dong; 곰빙단, 신설동

I love pho. I think it might rank as my all-time favorite food. Koreans like their Koreanized pho, as they like their Koreanized pizza, Koreanized sandwiches, and Koreanized everything else; with an ever increasing number of Vietnamese people coming to Korea though, it stands to reason that there should be an improvement in the quality of Vietnamese food here by way of some Vietnamese-run shops opening up and capitalizing, right? No more imitation crab and pickled radish in my goi cuon, and no more light yellow mopwater pho with al dente noodles and mere snippets of green onions, right? Wrong.
I am on the quest, trust me. I think that things might improve in the future, but for now, finding a good bowl of pho (along with many other good food items) in Korea will prove to be a lost cause. I am probably one hundred times closer to finding a fated true love than I am a good bowl of pho. Ok, enough of this talk, because I am getting depressed again.

We go up to Shinseol-dong for work here and there nowadays, and one day recently we were trodding around the backstreets and I saw the word 'Pho' and was ready to pass by it. I pointed it out in passing to Dan, and we sort of dared each other to go in. We opened the door, walked in to what seemed to be a chicken hof, and then a familiar, non Korean aroma wafted towards us - Vietnamese food. We walked to the back of the room, to discover this little corner in the chicken bar to be a Vietnamese restaurant. To boot, the owner was a Korean man with a young Vietnamese wife, and at a table were sitting two young Vietnamese women. I thought, 'could this be... the fated bowl of pho?' and we started getting excited about the prospect of having found real pho in Korea. Two bowls of Pho Bo please, 6000W a piece. Iced coffee for Dan and a Soda chanh for me.

What came out was definitely not the kind of dish I am used to calling pho. It looked pretty similar to a Korean bowl of pho, the same clear, near-water looking broth, the same sad-looking greeen onion bits floating around. They did offer us some cilantro as standard along with the sprouts, but nothing more. The noodles were cooked to a softer consistency than Korean people do, ie not al dente, which was appreciated and added something to the experience, at least. The broth though, was very sadly lacking.

We went back today so that we could get a couple snaps up, got the same order, same experience. Not worth going back again, really. Not expensive, not terribly inconvenient since we are in the neighborhood sometimes, but it's just as bad as a Korean pho place, which is pretty sad considering they had a wall of Vietnamese groceries and supplies on the wall for sale, like a mini-mart.

Food: 1/5 stars
Ambiance: 1.5/5 stars (authentic immigrant stall food to be sure, at least)
Service: 2.5/5 stars (the owner is friendly enough)

For now, I will have to eat my patented Pho Rice Burger (recipe forthcoming) and dream of real pho...