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)

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