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Friday, December 30, 2011

Korea Roundup 2011: Home-cooked Meals at Their Best

After having nutritious, home-made meals almost three times a day for a while, it's hard to go back to consuming store-bought kimchi. I wasn't liking any of the brands out here anyway.

I think I'll have to embark on making my own napa cabbage kimchi at home. Of course, my Mom makes it look so easy. This kimchi was so fresh, crisp and just no comparison to the mass produced store-bought kind. It's obvious, I know, but I really think I can't go back anymore.

I'm on a mission now to try making more than just kkakdugi, radish cube kimchi that is arguably the easiest kind of kimchi to make.

After making napa cabbage kimchi, I'd like to try this delicious cold kimchi soup that is the most refreshing side dish when having a meal of rice and soup. It cleanses the palate and also gives it a very mild kick from the red pepper flakes.

I know it's not photogenic but I go back to the humble bean sprouts that are stir-fried in some sesame oil with some water and makes for the best side dish. All I need is rice, soup, kimchi and these nutty-tasting bean sprouts.
Another amazing side dish that doesn't get as much love: duduk. It's a root with a very distinctive flavor that is tenderized and flattened and marinated in some spicy and sweet sauce with some sesame oil thrown in. Then pan-fried with some oil and voila.

Unlike many duduk roots, it was so tender and soft. Most importantly, it was super moist but not overly so (most duduk tastes dry).
Last but not least, there's myulchi bokkeum, or candied (with soy sauce, red pepper paste, sugar/honey, etc) dried anchovies with pine nuts, almonds and walnuts. True, there were a tad on the sweet side but I find it very hard to get the anchovies to be so incredibly crispy.

The nuts added another crunchy and, well, nutty dimension to this classic side dish.

The bottom line is consuming all these non-over-seasoned, non-overcooked and non-over-preserved foods inspired me further to cook Korean food more here even though it's so easy to drive to Koreatown Galleria and buy all my side dishes and kimchi.

I'm also on a quest for excellent quality rice. I yearn for the piping hot pots of rice that came to our table where the first bite into the grain was so unforgettable.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Korea Roundup 2011: The Final Highlights -- Fresh Tofu and Cold Noodles to Weather Snow

When it's extremely hot, Koreans eat even hotter foods like samgyetang, or chicken ginseng soup, so it's only natural that when it's extremely cold, Koreans eat even colder foods, like nengmyun, or cold buckwheat noodles.

This beef broth-based dish is very hard to get right. I still haven't found a great place in LA. I got a taste of the OG back in Korea at Hanwoori, which incidentally also serves a very mean jeongol guksoo, or beef noodle soup cooked tableside, that I reviewed a while back.




Here are other highlights.

1. Gamjajeon, or potato pancakes, similar to latkes but less shredded, served at Marohwajeok, which also serves killer yookhoe, excellent quality raw marinated beef strips with Asian pear strips and bulgoki.
2. Modern gujeolpan at Jeongdaham, which was like the original kogi "taco." Usually made out of flour and water, the wraps were colorful based on the additions of black sesame (dark grey) or spinach (green). And the fillings are traditionally different kinds of delicately sliced vegetables or meat. This one had vegetables but dressed in a light spicy mustard sauce that gave it an interesting kick.

Jeongdaham (정다함)
(031) 786-0877
3. The mushroom soup at the same place was also excellent. It tasted so comforting and rich with mushroom aroma and the addition of wild sesame powder that gives anything a very smoky and nutty flavor.

4. And the myulchi bokkeum, with the "candied" dried anchovies staring you in the eye, was crunchy, salty and slightly sweet -- hitting all the right notes.

5. I must give a shout-out to the tiny joints around Dongdaemun like Yeolboonshik (열분식), that invariably and utterly consistently serve fantastic kimbab, tuna rolls with perilla leaves that are made to order, for a meager $2. And on top of that, super spicy and gooey in a good way rabokki, stir-fried rice cakes with al dente ramen noodles, a hard-boiled egg, lots of green onions and fish cakes. The total damage for the entire meal: $5. OMG.
Yeolboonshik (열분식) -- It delivers!
(02) 2237-4535

6. Freshly made tofu at Dubu Maeul: Everything else was mediocre but the huge block of fresh tofu with stir-fried over-ripe kimchi was something I really missed in LA. I used to be able to go to any market's basement and sample piping hot tofu blocks fresh out of the tray. This tofu, made fresh every morning at the restaurant, took me back. Time to make my own tofu at home, perhaps?
Dubu Maeul (두부마을)
(031) 266-3868

7. Galbi and Nakji jiim at Moodol: I'd never had braised short ribs with octopus before, so it was an interesting treat trying this version that was a specialty from Cheolla Province in Korea's Southwestern region. Octopus could easily be rubbery if overcooked but combined with super soft short ribs, they were tender and had just the right level of chewiness. The marinade wasn't overly sweet or salty but just right.
Moodol (무돌)
(02) 515-3088

8. Moving on to desserts, I had a revelation with this rice cake called duteopttuk from Chaegeundam. I could tell it was made with extreme care and skill. It's not sold in your typical rice cake shop but take one bite and you'll taste the cinnamon, pine nuts, chestnuts, walnuts and jujubes, as well as the hints of sweetness from honey and essence from dried yuja rind, also known by its Japanese name, yuzu.
Chaegeondam (채근담)
(02) 555-9173

9. For some serious desserts, we headed to Be Sweet On and had the most spectacularly grandiose and sweet indeed St. Honore cake, apple tartine and a strawberry layered wafer cake. The St. Honore was, in a word, ridiculous. The puffs were perfect, topped with a dark brown and glossy caramel with custard cream on the inside. Wow.
The strawberry layered wafer cake was probably the least memorable in terms of flavor. It was good but not as satisfying as the other two. The strawberry ice cream tasted home-made and was delicious.
The grand finale was the apple tartine, which was monumental in its vertical structure. The puff pastry layers were crumbly, crunchy and a bit on the over-baked side but still excellent. I felt like I was eating a deconstructed chausson au pomme, French apple turnovers that are one of my favorite things in the world to nibble on as a snack (warmed up in an oven, of course). Turnovers a-la-mode at that, with a scoop of home-made vanilla ice cream. I wished I could have finished it but alas, I was wavering between this and the St. Honore that's harder to come by unless you can fly to Paris at a moment's notice.

Be Sweet On
(02) 323-2370

I wish I could have tried more places and traveled outside of Seoul but I'll have to get a rain-check for that. Please share you Seoul eats stories here!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Korea Roundup 2011: Grilled Salted Fish, Raw Crab and Magical Moving Tables

I like the food at Chungmok (청목 나들애), especially the grilled goolbi, or salted white croaker (although I'm never sure about the exact translations when it comes to fish because they vary depending on who you ask).


It serves jungshik (no relation to the restaurant I just reviewed of the same name), which is a full meal where the table is literally covered with loads of side dishes and main dishes. The stars also included gyejang, or raw marinated crab and bossam, steamed pork belly wrapped in cabbage leaves with some fiery kimchi.


The grilled fish was soft, smoky and just salty enough from the salt added when the jogi (fresh fish) was turned into the dried salted kind, goolbi, similar to bacalao (salted cod) popular in Portuguese cuisine.

While very challenging to consume (good luck getting the tiny bit of flesh out of the shell), the raw crab was gooey and salty in a good way and went so well with the fantastic rice cooked in an individual stone pot.

I didn't appreciate the excellent quality of the rice as much when I was there, until I returned to LA and made some rice in my humble rice cooker and...realized how each grain had a good bite to it and was cooked just right -- not too soft, not too hard. Oh my. I miss that rice.







Probably the most fascinating thing about this place besides the pretty good fish and crab was this:

 
Check out how the tables are set. It's Korean ingenuity at its best. Ok, I'm not sure Koreans invented this but I've never seen it before anywhere else. So efficient. Fascinating.

The restaurant is based in Icheon, a city southeast of Seoul known for its ceramics, rice and peaches. The stone pot rice will undoubtedly make the city proud. It has three additional locations, including this one in Bundang.

Chungmok (청목 나들애)
(031) 717-4224

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Korea Roundup 2011: How Do You Say Molecular Gastronomy in Korean? Junsikdang.


I visited Junsikdang, of NY Times' Junsik fame and allegedly Korea's answer to molecular gastronomy, the next horizon in globalizing Korean food once and for all.

The verdict is that while expectations were indeed high, results were mixed. I liked the main dish, a glorious pork belly slow cooked to perfection -- super soft and tender on the inside and crispy on the outside like bacon. But as a whole, I don't think it's there.


Dubbed Five Senses Pork Belly, it is meant to hit at the spicy, crunchy, sour, soft and sweet. There was certainly a lot going on, so much that the Wall Street Journal had a story on just the dish alone.

The whole grandiose thing lay atop pureed potatoes with onions and a pickled garlic leaf has become the most elusive ingredient for me to buy at a market as it's not available in regular markets but adds so much to meat dishes I'm trying to get my hands on it.


Then the pork belly slices were topped with some sweet and tart blackberry and ginger jam and pickled Korean green peppers. It was an explosion of flavors and textures but I loved the softness of the pork that (despite the cliche) really did melt in your mouth.

The dish I liked least but held lots of promise was the sea urchin bibimbap that came with seaweed, quinoa, sliced onions, green onions and to my outrage, watered down kimchi. It tasted so bland I had to tell the manager who checked in with us. Why water down the kimchi, I asked? For the foreigners, I was told. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes Koreans make about Korean food and foreigners. People, non-Koreans like spicy food too.

The less photogenic but much more flavorful anchovy broth-based rice topped with toasted seaweed was far better. More humble but more comforting.

There were choices for four courses of the meal. The other notable was the classic galbi, or short ribs. The meat was extremely well cooked (again, melt in your mouth) although the marinade was a tad on sweet side. The interesting thing was it came with fried rice cake balls that gave some crunchy texture to the dish.

The other starters were unremarkable. Beautiful, yes, but not particularly mind-blowing. There was a deconstructed Caprese salad of arugula sorbet, chopped tomatoes, basil, mozarella and some micro greens that was nothing special. The sorbet didn't work on a cold, winter day. Maybe a summer dish.


The beet and cucumber salad was an amazing architecture project and gorgeous to look at but there was too much going on so it was hard to appreciate any one element of it.

The second thing I was most taken by was its crusty bread. It had just the right amount of saltiness with the butter spread on it, it was fantastic. Probably the best bread I've had in Korea.

The amuse bouche also looked better than they tasted. Tofu in flan-like form and other unmemorable bites.




I was looking forward to dessert, where it served makgeolli cake. Makgeolli is a traditional rice wine that's recently taken on more popularity. Alas, I was disappointed.
The sponge cake did have a hint of makgeolli but quickly got soggy as it touched the crushed ice base and it wasn't a pleasant combination.
The second dessert featured spinach sponge cake, raspberry mouse and a refreshing sorbet. Lovely, right? Interesting textures, colors and flavors but they didn't blend well together.
The finale was good though. They had dried tangerine rinds tea that was excellent. It was smoky, tart, sweet and the perfect cup of tea on a very cold and windy day. I wish I could buy some somewhere. The complimentary muffins were unfortunately dry and unremarkable. I won't be running to its NY outpost but at least I won't be wondering when it's coming to LA. I didn't get to try celebrity chef Edward Kwon's cooking -- call him the Bobby Flay of Korean cuisine -- but I suspect it's overrated.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Korea Roundup 2011: Attention Spice Lovers, These Noodles are for You


If you asked me whether I was a jjajangmyun or jjamppong-kind of person, I'd say jjajangmyun in a heartbeat. But it's rare that you find a restaurant that only serves the latter so I got curious. Both are staple noodle dishes served in Korean Chinese establishments. This place called itself Hong Kong Ban Jeom 0410, and proclaimed itself famous for this seafood noodle dish, usually served in a red hot broth reflecting its heat level.


I had the regular jjamppong that was a panoply of pork strips, mussels, squid, kimchi and zucchini, brought together by an intensely spicy broth that tasted like the sea. The noodles were done just right and helped to balance out the spiciness.

What was interesting was that this joint served variations on the classic jjamppong, namely broth-less stir-fried jjamppong and jjamppong fried rice. Hard to believe no one's thought of that so far, right? The stir-fried jjamppong was basically the same ingredients (except shrimp, carrots, mushrooms and green onions added) as my noodle soup except they were stir-fried and not as spicy. It was excellent and gave jjamppong another dimension I hadn't appreciated before.

No outing to a Korean Chinese restaurant is complete without a taste of its tangsuyook -- deep fried pieces of pork or beef smothered in a salty and sweet sauce (not sweet and sour, mind you). The beef morsels were tender, unlike many joints that skimp on the quality of the meat and mask it with dough and globs of disgusting sauce. The sauce was just gooey enough and had the right amount of sweetness.

Despite it being a lot of food, we diligently finished it off, especially me with my spicy noodle soup, although I think it isn't for the weak of stomachs. It's potent so beware.

It was an amazing deal at less than $4 for my noodles... I predict a rant pending about the quality of jjamppongs in LA.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Korea Roundup 2011: And Then There Was Tonkatsu, Real Tonkatsu

Ok, here's the deal. Every day of the week beginning today, I'll post about one amazing restaurant or food item I had in Korea, culminating in the end of the year, where I'll be posting, you guessed it, the Best of 2011!

Today's entry is about tonkatsu -- remember that ethereal fried thing featured on my rant a while back? Well, I'll be damned, because I came to the sad realization that Korea has better tonkatsu than LA.

Yes, it's true. Welcome to Saboten, probably one of the world's largest tonkatsu franchises. I suspect it may be easier for a Japanese mega-franchise like Saboten to open a branch in Seoul, but hey, what about us over here in humble Los Angeles? I had other puzzling moments, wondering why the Korean website and the main Saboten Japan site were both so hard to find (I smell a major opportunity with SEO and web business).

But I digress. Ok, so what if it has like 500 shops throughout Asia? It serves excellent tonkatsu and that's all that matters.

I tried the most luxurious of them all -- a mix of quality pork tenderloin and loin in 17 layers! So not only was the outer shell incredibly crispy with perfectly fried bread crumbs, but the meat inside was also extremely soft -- even softer than if it were one chunk of tenderloin because it consisted of thin layers of meat that was tender and easy to bite into. We've all had the experience of trying to vigorously bite off the tonkatsu flesh off. This layered approach gets rid of the problem.

The lunch set came with rice, a cabbage salad, miso soup, pickled daikon radish and a mild soy sauce-based dipping sauce that had grated radish and green onions that went well with the fried beauties.

I didn't crave the classic mustard and thick soy sauce-based sauce usually had with tonkatsu but it was available.

It also offered all sorts of other tonkatsus like stuffed with cheese, etc, but I'm a purist and don't think they would go well so stuck to the (layered) classic.

Not sure if this is the norm, but management at the Myungdong location was shaky with poor service and lax restroom maintenance.

I later learned Saboten shops were indeed ubiquitous throughout Seoul and the suburbs. All I want to know is, WHEN ARE YOU COMING TO LA? THE MASSES DEMAND IT. That's it. I'm starting a petition and sending it to Saboten HQ. Who's in?