Friday, April 17, 2015

Grand Opening at Booming G

Lasagna at Booming G
Salmon at Booming G
I was lucky to be invited to the opening of Booming G in the New Sidus HQ Tower in Gangnam. The chef is Bora Song who is well known in the foodie community. She has set up a great Italian focused menu and she uses her creativity to add depth of flavor to her dishes. 

While I was there I had an excellent free-form lasagna made with fresh noodles. I loved the meat and sauce on it. There is a secret ingredient in it to give it body. Ask the chef to find out what it is. 
Risotto from Booming G
Chicken Wing from Booming G
Her mushroom risotto was creamy and poppy. I thought finally I found a place that made risotto with arborio rice but nope she hacked it. The poppy texture was made by adding barley and rice. We also had a salmon dish that had crispy skin and salmon cooked just right. 

They have a decent beer selection as well. This is one of those places I will be back to visit and I hope it does well. 
Fricken Toy Museum at Booming G

Chef Bora from Booming G

Oh, and in and around the restaurant is a fricken toy museum with all sorts of stuff from Star Wars to Marvel. Awesome. 

Congrats Chef Bora!

Booming G
267-15 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul basement 1
Open on your mobile map with this link

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tteokbokki: The Beloved Spicy, Chewy Rice Cake Dish of Korea

Korean tteokbokki 떡보끼
Tteokbokki or the westernized pronounciation: Topokki is one of those dishes you have to experience to understand the hype surrounding it. It is a beloved dish in Korea that invokes nostalgic memories and emotions. It is a child's special meal after a long, grueling day at school or a dish shared between girls to discuss gossip. It is a dish with many different variations such as with cheese sauce, sesame soy, and even tomato. These days the trend is for gukmul Tteokbokki or spicy broth rice cakes. The noodles are in light broth that is spicy and sweet.

I have seen many a Koreans debate about their favorite topokki and about the merits of different styles and sauces. Some like thick long rods of rice cake while others like the smaller and chewier nugget-style rice cakes. There is also a debate between the fluffier flour made cakes and the must chewier rice-made cakes. Toppings range from simple fish cake to various seafood such as octopus, mussels, shrimp to other ingredients like cheese, beef bulgogi, dumplings, ramen, egg...the possibilities are endless. After you eat the dish there is inevitably sauce and other bits left over so it is possible to make a fried rice with the leftovers by adding seaweed laver, sesame oil and corn.

When I meet international travelers on food tours they are all curious about this dish. They perceive the hype surrounding it but they can’t seem to fathom what it really is. I guess to travelers seeing it for the first time, it may look like a red hot mess. Some of my guests have seen this dish before on Korean dramas and television so they are curious. They want to try it but they assume that it is very, very spicy and they don’t really know what the rice cakes or the fish cakes in the sauce are. Some guests have even asked me if the dish has tripe or pig skin in it. Also with so many places from street carts to store fronts selling this dish, they can’t decide where to try it.

For those that don’t know what topokki is, it is rice cake noodles in a spicy chili sauce. The dish is said to have evolved from a royal court cuisine dish that was made with rice cakes, mushrooms, carrots, and beef in a sesame-soy-sauce seasoning. Rice cakes in olden times were a luxury that was reserved for special occasions and for the rich. In the mid 19 hundreds, because of advances in technology and rice surpluses this ingredient was more readily available.

It is widely believed that the red chili paste version recipe was invented by accident in 1953, when street food vendor Ma Bok-rim accidentally dropped a rice cake into her father-in-law’s black bean noodle dish. It tasted good, so she started experimenting with sauces and seasonings.

She found that the red chili paste tasted the best and started selling it from her street cart. She would sell topokki along with steamed corn and potatoes to those going to a nearby theatre. The dish was a big hit and soon she upgraded her street stall to a restaurant and others copied her. Her restaurant can still be found near the entrance of Sindang-dong Topokki Town, proudly proclaiming “Since 1953.” 

Mabongnim Halmeoni Tteokbokki

Opened in 1953 by a woman known as Mabongnim, the restaurant takes pride in its 60-plus years of service. They serve a Korean casserole dish called tteokbokki which has chewy rice cake noodles in a spicy soup broth that has noodles, fish cakes, seafood, dumplings and more. This restaurant started as a small food stall that was serving snacks to guests going to the nearby theatre when a mistake was made. A rice cake noodle fell into the black bean sauce and Mabongnim had an eureka moment. She cooked the noodles in a sauce and tteokbokki was invented. As Mabongnim gained popularity, other similar establishments opened nearby, and eventually, formed “tteokbokki street.” The elderly owner is well known. She even starred in a red-pepper paste ad in the 1990s. The secret of this restaurant’s tteokbokki lies in the sauce. Here red pepper paste is mixed with Chinese soybean paste for a sweet and spicy taste.

Mabongnim Halmeoni Tteokbokki
Click Here for mobile map Jung-gu Dasan-ro 35 gil 5 (Sindangdong)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Parts Unknown Seoul Episode with Anthony Bourdain

Daniel Gray with Anthony Bourdain in Seoul

Wow. One of the highlights of my life as a foodie was to meet Mr. Anthony Bourdain when he came to Seoul. When he finally came to Seoul with his team, I was excited and I hoped that maybe I would be asked to be on the show, but I didn't know what would come of it. Joe McPherson of Zenkimchi was working as the fixer on the production so I thought they already had their foodie for the show. I was lucky to meet up with the lovely Nari, who is a producer with Zero Point Zero Productions and director Marc. We met up for noodles and we talked about the show and I gave suggestions for guests on the show. I then recommended some of friends for the show and some other food experts that I knew. The production seemed to be quite big and they were looking for people that had real insights into Korea. I recommended my friend, DJ Shine from the rap group Drunken Tiger. I am really looking to see how his interview goes.

What was interesting is that I had something to do with the steps leading up to Mr. Bourdain's return to Korea. I had first worked with Zero Point Zero back in 2009 as a fixer for Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie Show. That was my first job working in video and I am proud of that episode. Over the years I got to work with lots of other productions and then I was asked by Euny Hong, author of the Birth of Korean Cool to help set up interviews and translations for her book. I didn't know then that Nari would give Mr. Bourdain a copy of that book. Apparently, Mr. Bourdain liked the book it was one of the reasons he wanted to make his triumphant return to Korea. Small world.

I think the show will show the real side of Korea and not the sterile, healthy, beautiful, castrated view that many would like you to see. Korea is sophisticated and beautiful, but I feel the kinetic, exciting parts are what will draw people to Korea. Korea is fun. It's exciting. The food can be messy and smelly, but it tastes real. People like to drink in Korea and I think that is fine as well.

I was so happy to meet one of my heroes and I got to be on his show. Reading Kitchen Confidential made me want to work in the restaurant industry. After university, I worked in restaurants to survive and I thought my calling was to be a chef. I started attending culinary school until my mentor, Chef Lou, gave me deeper insight into the industry. He said that my silly degree wasn't going to get me a better job in the restaurant industry and it was simply a vanity project. He told me work and learn on the job, save up and buy my own place. Chef Lou was a bitter old guy that had been through it all. He put in his time and he had places of his own, which closed. He was working as a head chef of the restaurant I was at because he needed to live. He was a lifer and I hope he is well today.

So what was it like to meet Anthony Bourdain? Amazing. He is a remarkable person. He can eat and drink anyone under the table and yet maintain a zenlike composure. He was the star on set but he would direct how he wanted the scenes to play out from the background. He had incredible insight into Korean concepts of Han. I simply tried to keep up with him and stay sober.

Watch the Seoul episode on April 26th at 9pm ET/PT on CNN.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Crazy Spicy Cheese Ribs at Hong Brick

Crazy Spicy Pork Ribs with Cheese from Hong Brick
I believe that food should be fun and social. Luckily there are others that think that as well. Friday night was the first Seoul Food and Travel Meetup and we had a great time. We explored the area of Garusugil, ate some food and got to know each other. It was fun and casual. We had some people from America here on vacation Keren and her daughters from California. Keren runs the Haydon Street Inn, a bed and breakfast in Healdsburg California. We also had AK Salling who is running Scandinavian Cooking Classes in Seoul called Mad & Haggye. We had an expat teacher Natalie and a new arrival, David join us.

The Review

So our first stop was at Hong and Brick which is famous for their cheese fondue and spicy pork ribs dish. You can get it at different levels of spiciness. Unfortunately, we did spicy. We should have asked for medium. It is spicy. really spicy. Like hurt your belly and be careful when you go pee spicy. It was really good dipped in the melted cheese which had some corn and peas in it. The ribs were tasty. They were charbroiled and then covered in sauce. I liked the addition of the rice cakes as well which took away some of the heat and added a chewy texture. It was pretty spicy though and they didn't really have much in the way of side dishes other than some pickles and more corn. Surprisingly, the corn helped to cool down the spiciness. They also had peach juice but it wasn't Cool Peesse Brand (yes there is actually a brand called that). Peach juice in Korea will actually cool your mouth off. This one didn't so much. Go for the real stuff if you can get it.

Afterwards, we got the fried rice which had kimchi and seaweed in it. It was good.

Overall, not so bad for the price and it was fun. For 6 of us it came to about 73,000 won and we had a couple beers there. It's not gourmet, but it was a fun place to dine.

Hong Brick
2 stars out of 4
Click here to open the map app on your phone Seoul Gangnamgu Sinsadong 536-7
서울시 감남구신사동 536-7
Crazy Spicy Pork Ribs with Cheese from Hong Brick

Crazy Spicy Pork Ribs with Cheese from Hong Brick

Crazy Spicy Pork Ribs with Cheese from Hong Brick

Friday, April 10, 2015

5 of the Best Jajangmyeon 짜장면 in the City of Seoul, Korea

The Best Jajamyeon in Seoul by Daniel Gray
Jajangmyeon 짜장면: Korea's favorite hand pulled noodles in an black sauce is also a favorite dish of mine. It's so famous they even have a holiday for it. It's filling and hearty like a bowl of spaghetti but with Asian flair. It's one of those dishes that you can get whenever you need a quick meal and it doesn't break the wallet. It's a pretty ubiquitous dish and every Chinese restaurant must have it. If it does it well, the place becomes famous. If it is just alright, it is just a meal and gets classed in with all of the other places in the city. I can't say I have had any seriously terrible jajangmyeons except maybe some delivery places (where the noodles are overcooked and terribly clumped together so it takes like 10 minutes to get the sauce mixed into it) but even then it is still edible. With the noodles, I love to get fried dumplings and a place is good fried dumplings or some other sides like tangsuyok 탕수육. Anyway, the dish is loaded with calories (jajangmyeon has about 1000 calories per bowl if you also eat all the sauce) and as you know, I can't afford to waste my calories on terrible food (thanks wifey and MIL for reminding me). It's a comfort food so save it for when you get down and be sure to eat at places that are actually worthwhile. So what I look for in great jajangmyeon is a nice thick and savory sauce that is not too black bean...ish. Also, I prefer noodles that are handmade and pulled rather than the packaged ones.

Here are my picks for the best jajangmyeon in the city of Seoul.
Tomato and Beef Noodle from Daehangak

5. Daehangak

I learned about this place because one of my friends was a yoga instructor and she told me that make amazing Chinese food without any MSG and they grow a lot of the stuff on their organic farm. I was like yeah right because MSG is one of the three whites that make all food in Korea taste delicious (sung to the tune of Mary Poppin's a spoonful of sugar..."a spoonful of sugar, a spoonful of salt and an spoonful of MSG to make the jajangmyeon go down..." The food is amazing here and it has a brightness and lightness that I don't normally find at Korean Chinese places. I think that Korean Chinese food is comfort food. It is a bit heavy, but afterwards you feel content. The place is very old fashioned looking (it looks like a communist den). They are famous for their Chinese course menus that start around 25,000 won a person. They use tomatoes in a lot of their dishes including the amazing tomato beef noodle dish you see above (note...this is usually a seasonal item for summer). The jajangmyeon here is just ok. I don't think they hand make their noodles and the sauce is a tad soy-saucy (maybe this is where the MSG is needed). I would recommend that you go their for their other amazing dishes like their Sweet and Sour Pork Dish or their fried dumplings. Their tangsuyok is really nice here as well. Now, you can get their jajangmyeon, but I would recommend you get it as part of their coursed menu since all the dishes leading up to it, will really showcase their skill and organic ingredients. Crispy and the sauce has a bit more of a citrus flavor. Incredible stuff.

Click here to open on your phone in Google Maps Seoul Yongsangu Itaewon-dong 34-151
서울시 용산구 이태원동 34-151 2F (크라운 호텔 뒤편 크라운 약국 2층)
Telephone: 02-798-9990

O'mori Jajangmyeon 

4. O'mori by Jamsil and Jongno

Ok, there are a lot of O'mori Kimchi Chiggae places but they don't all do jajangmyeon. What I love about O'mori is that it is like the "greatest hits" of Korean food and make them homestyle. They are famous for their kimchi stew because they use 3-year old, aged kimchi. I know that they were involved in some scandals about their kimchi, but honestly, it is the best. The place does feel a bit like fast food but it is made by hand or made with artisan ingredients. The black bean sauce here for the jajangmyeon is subtle, a tiny bit sweet and they have pork pieces that are not just pork belly (which I am fine with because I don't feel I need to have that with every meal, however, the classic recipe calls for it). O'mori hand makes their noodles, so I feel they deserve to be considered one of the best places. A lot of places now don't hand pull them because labor cost is so high and it is easier to just make prepackaged sauce and prepackaged noodles, boil and serve. The problem is that the noodles don't have the texture, the chew and the different widths. I think because the noodles aren't all uniform, that it adds to the flavor of this dish.

O'mori Chiggae
Click here to open on your phone Seoul, Songpagu Seokchon-dong 183-2

서울시 송파구 석촌동 183-2
Phone: 02-423-0067

3. Donghui-ru 동회루 Handmade Jajamyeon and Sauce

This is a place that I have a love an hate relationship with. I love their handmade noodles and I love their homemade sauces. I love their mapo dubu (spicy tofu...which is said to resemble the face of an ugly pockfaced woman). It's a place with history that has been around a long time and it is a place that I will still go to, but...service is not very good and they will try to cheat you if you they have a chance. So...if you go in and you want to order a dish, make it clear that you want the small portion the lunch portion. If you come a bit later than 3 they will assume you want the anju version (the drinking side dish) which is like triple the size and costs a lot more. Regardless, the food is good (even if they will bring beers even if you had not asked for them.) I really enjoy the sauce on their jajangmyeon and their hand pulled noodles makes all the difference. It's the classic taste of jajangmyeon just done rice. Oh, the interior (like all of these places) is quite plain and communist. Just accept it. I mean if you want a royal interior then check out Din Tae Fung or Crystal Palace.

Donghui-ru 동회루
Click here to open the map on your phone. Seoul, Junggu Pildong 2ga 7-3
대한민국 서울시 중구 필동2가 7-3
Phone: 02-2265-1278

2. Gaehwa
Located by the Chinese Embassy makes them one of the defacto places for the Chinese to dine at. They have been doing this for 50 years, so the place hasn't really changed much in that time. It's wholesome, the black bean is black and savory. I would have to say that I feel this place has the best black bean sauce. It has a nice deep soy flavor without being too salty. It is well balanced by the pork bits in the sauce as well. This place also has amazing fried dumplings. Wow...they are so crispy and meat inside is has a nice flat garlicky flavor to it that melds well with the savory pork. Wow. Their Tangsuyok is really good here is well. I think they use glutinous rice flour because the texture is a bit fuller than others. Really good place for lunch or you can splurge for the full course which can go in the 100,000 (100 USD) a person. I also really like their fried rice because you get a bit of the black bean sauce on the side with it.

Gaehwa 개화

Click here to open on your phone Seoul, Junggu Myeongdong 2ga 107 
서울시 중구 명동2가 107
Phone: 02-776-0508
picture from theboy9368

1. Sinseonggak 신성각
For some strange reason, over by Gongdeok station there are just great food places. I mean there is the barbecue street and my favorite place for kimchi stew. Sinseonggak has been in Gongdeok since 1981 and they are doing things right. I love the lightness of their noodles, the flavor and density of their noodles and their sorta quirky, but threatening attitude. (Their rules of the house state you must get your own water, don't smoke, don't pay by card, don't bring your own alcohol.) Which is common knowledge, but I guess they don't want the distractions and want to focus on the food. Their key is the amount of vegetables that they use in their food. Lots of them. Their tangsuyok has lots of green onions and cucumbers and they are fresh so that adds an extra dimension to the dish. Their noodles are made in house and I feel the noodle maker has a secret for they silky yet chewy and light. And their jajangmyeon. It's all about the lots of veggies that they use in their sauce over all the perfectly cooked noodles. This place likes to add lots of cabbage, onions, and veggies to their sauce. It's what really makes them stand out. If you are looking for a great place with an old time feel. This is where you should go. Just follow the rules.

Sinseonggak 신성각
Click here to open the address on your phone Seoul, Mapo-gu Singongdeok-dong 2-463

서울시 마포구 신공덕동 2-463
Phone: 02-716-1210

Shin Mun gak
Honorable Mention

Shin Mun Gak (신문각)
This place had its hayday a long time ago. My recent visit was just ok. It seems to have lost the spark of what it was. I can't say that it was terrible. No, it wasn't it was fine and good and normal. The sauce is a bit lighter than it used to be and the noodles are just noodles (not handmade). I remember the fried rice tasting better as well. Anyway...not a terrible's just that I need to save my calories for the good stuff. The interior is cool because it is so old but...because it is so old, it has lost the spark.

Shin Mun Gak (신문각)
Click here to open the address on your phone Seoul Jongno-gu Sinmun-ro 1ga 51
서울시 종로구 신문로1가 51
Phone: 02-736-3289

You can find all these restaurants on the New Best of Seoul Map here. The jajangmyeong places are the black colored marks.