An Introduction to Korean Cuisine: The Ten Best Restaurants in Seoul
Residents of Seoul are renowned for their propensity to dine out on a regular basis, partly due to the long hours which most people work in this bustling city, and partly due to the enticement of its vibrant restaurant scene. Seoul’s wide array of restaurants, bars and market stalls encapsulate the riches of Korean cuisine, which has recently risen to global prominence and is being recognised for its complexity and sophistication, beyond the traditional favourites of barbecue and kimchee.
Song Jook Heon (송죽헌)
Hanjeongsik is the most lavish and luxurious type of Korean cuisine; a huge variety of smaller side dishes are combined with a main dish of meat, fish or, depending on the season, hot pot to create an extravagant banquet. This originated in the royal palaces and aristocratic homes of ancient Korea, and these refined origins are still evident in the sheer abundance of dishes on offer in a traditional Hanjeongsik, which can be up to thirty. Seoul’s Song Jook Heon is a well-established purveyor of the Hanjeongsik tradition and offers a wonderful introduction to the more opulent aspects of Korean cuisine.
37-1 Unni-dong, Jongro-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 운니동37-1); +82 2 763 4234.
Byeokje Galbi (벽제갈비)
Specialising in beef, or Hanu, Byeokje Galbi concentrates on the more carnivorous side of the Korean food spectrum. It focuses on galbi, the Korean grilled or barbecued meat that has become famous throughout the globe. The thinly sliced pieces of beef are barbecued on the table in front of diners, along with a range of side dishes, to ensure maximum freshness and a convivial and social atmosphere. Byeokje Galbi is a refined and lavish take on the simple pleasures of the barbecue in which the quality of the meat is paramount. All of the beef served in the restaurant is from a Pocheon farm owned by the restaurant and is specially reared to ensure tenderness and flavour.
1-4, Yangjae-daero 71-gil, Songpa-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 송파구 양재대로71길 1-4 방이동); +82-2-1330.
Eulji Myun Oak (을지면옥)
Naengmyeon is a refreshing Korean staple; cold noodles made from either buckwheat or potatoes, stewed in vinegary beef broth and served cold with cucumbers, pears, boiled egg and a spicy mustard sauce, and occasionally topped off with cold braised beef. The dish is served in a distinctive stainless steel bowl and is a light and uplifting counterpoint to the heavier Korean classics, and is connected with longevity and good health in Korean culture. Eulji Myun Oak has been serving Naengmyeon for over thirty years and is still a favourite amongst locals for its family feel and the sheer quality of its well preserved Naengmyeon recipe.
177-1 Yipjung-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 중구 입정동177-1); +82 2 2266 7052.
Imun Seolleongtang (이문 설농탕)
One of Seoul’s oldest surviving restaurants; Imun Seolleongtang was opened in 1907, and has weathered the various tumultuous upheavals that have beset the city. It specialises in seolleongtang, a rich beef soup made by stewing ox bones and brisket for over a period of several hours, and adding spring onions, garlic and peppers. The milky white soup is then added to rice or noodles and combined with the typical Korean side dishes of kim chee and radishes. The simple, hearty soup is a local delicacy and has been for many centuries. It traces its origins to the proclamation of King Seongjong: a dish should be created which could feed the maximum number of people using the least amount of ingredients, the result of which was seolleongtang.
Seoul-si Jongno-gu Gongpyeong-dong 46, 서울특별시 종로구 우정국로 38-20 (견지동), +82-2-1330.
Si Hwa Dam (시화담)
A self-proclaimed museum of Korean cuisine, Si Hwa Dam is a visual feast as much as a culinary one. The name of the restaurant translates as ‘poetry, painting and discussion’ and the innovative cuisine lives up to these artistic qualities, offering a refined and meticulous approach to presentation; the food is so immaculate it almost seems a shame to eat it. The stylised approach to Korean classics and authentic Korean ingredients are combined with an emphasis on elegance and a revival of Korean cultural traditions. The restaurant is located in the traditional artisan area of Insadong and the seasonal cooking is rooted in the customs of Korean cuisine but is given a visual and olfactory twist which makes it a complete sensory experience.
5-5 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 용산구 이태원동5-5); +82 2 798 3311.
Na Jeong-sun Halmae Jjukkumi (나정순할매쭈꾸미)
Jjukkumi , or mini-octopus, is another delicacy which is unique to Korea; these baby octopuses are typically marinated in a red chilli ‘gochugaru’ sauce and then stir-fried. It is notorious for its spiciness even amongst the normally chilli loving locals. The dish is often served with grilled pork belly (samgyeopsal) or perilla leaves and is a common accompaniment to the massive quantities of Soju which is drunk every day in Seoul. The best place to find Jjukkumi is the ‘Jjukkumi Alley’ in Yongdu-dong, in which every restaurant is dedicated to the fiery treat, and there is even a Bronze statue of an octopus marking the entrance to the alley. Na Jeong-sun Halmae Jjukkumi is considered the best of these restaurants and is run by Grandma Na Jeong-sun who has served her own distinctive take on Jjukkumi in Jjukkumi Alley for several decades.
Jjukkumi Alley, Yongdu-dong: subway station Jegi, exit 6.
Gae Hwa Oak (개화옥)
A refined and simple take on Korean cuisine, this restaurant is almost minimalist in its approach, with traditional flavour combinations pared down to their most vibrant. Their specialities include black Jeju pork and barley fed beef from a local farm, as well as the conventional bossam (pork shoulder) and bulgogi (marinated grilled beef). The minimalist approach extends to the reserved and even austere interior, which allows the vivid flavours of Korean cuisine to speak for themselves. The simplicity and humility of Korean cooking is embodied in the restaurant which explores the profound riches of culinary traditions in the country to uncover forgotten flavours. Where the restaurant does bring in elements alien to Korean cooking is in the wine list, which is one of the most extensive in Seoul, since the owner Sun-hee Kim is intent on proving that wine can be combined with Korean food to delectable effect.
661-18 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 강남구신사동 661-18); +82 2 549 1459.
Nolboo Sulfur Duck Restaurant (놀부유황오리진흙구이-잠실점)
Duck is not commonly a staple part of the Korean diet and tends to only be served in specialist restaurants like this one, where the unique cooking method is an essential part of the culinary experience. In the Nolboo Sulfur Duck Restaurant, duck is stuffed with root vegetables and nuts such as ginseng, licorice roots, gingko nuts, figs and pine nuts, and then placed inside an earthen ware oven where it is slowly roasted for over three hours. The restaurant is renowned for the quality of its ducks, which are fed sulphur to maximize their tenderness. The restorative and healthy qualities of this dish are recognised by locals who flock to Nolboo; combined with the lengthy cooking time of the duck, this means reservations are required.
450, Dogok-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul, 서울특별시 송파구 도곡로 450 (잠실동) 1층, +82-2-1330.
Serving only the freshest seafood, this restaurant gets its daily catch from a town named Goraebul in Gyeongsang province. The freshness of their seafood allows them to serve many dishes raw, in distinctively Korean takes on the Japanese traditions of Sushi and Sashimi. The menu is dependent on the daily catch and often features octopus, clams and flatfish, along with varieties of gwamegi (Pacific herring) and fish roe. The clean and simple flavours of the fish are intensified by the minimalist presentation and simple additions of rice or fermented beans.
828-53 Yeoksam 1-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 강남구 역삼1동 828-53); +82 2 556 3677.
Gwangjang Market (광장시장)
Not a restaurant per se, but home to some of Seoul’s finest cuisine, Gwangjang Market is a mecca for anyone who has tasted the delights of Korean street food. Featuring stalls selling dishes such as bindaeduk (mung bean pancakes), tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), sundae (blood sausage stuffed with noodles) and jokbal (braised pig’s trotters), as well as the classic and ubiquitous bibimbap, this is the place to experience the widest variety of Korean cuisine. The atmosphere of the market, which also sells a range of fresh produce, imbues this experience with authenticity, and is an essential part of any food lover’s trip to Seoul. The cultural and social roots of Korean cooking are best expressed in its street food, and Gwangjang Market is the place to experience it.
6-1 Yeji-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea.
By Thomas Storey
Images courtesy: 1: Korea Taste, 2: karendotcom127/WikiCommons, 3: Maangchi, 4: Mike Chung/WikiCommons, 5: Si Hwa Dam, 6: Korean Bapsang, 7: Jungle Map, 8: Visit Korea, 9: Ebifry/WikiCommons, 10: WikiCommons.