For a long time, coming home to Seoul was all about nostalgia. In the two weeks out of the year I spend in my hometown, I wanted only to make the rounds of all my favorites, eating my fill of cold noodles, dumplings, and all the other basic, beloved foods that are never as good in New York as they are at home. And then when Diane and I started working on the cookbook, I wanted to eat through all the traditional favorites that were never my family’s traditions, like stinky cheonggukjang stew and spicy dakgalbi.
But now, I’m a little more curious what’s new. Seoul has changed so much since I lived here. It makes me a little sad to go shopping in Myeongdong and see edgy design stores selling Toms shoes and Baggu totes — when you live in New York, you want to travel somewhere that reminds you nothing of New York — but I’m hopeful, in food if in nothing else, that Koreans will put their own stamp on whatever they adopt.
수불, or SuhBuhl (my stab at a transliteration), declares, “Our food, with drinks,” on its business cards. Near the top of the winding street at the center of 서래마을, or Seorae Village, in Banpo-dong, SuhBuhl is one of many airy and open restaurants, cafes, izakayas, bakeries, and wine bars that’s transformed this part of town into past ten or so years. Seorae Village is known as the French part of Seoul, the location of the Lycee Francaise and the residential base of the several hundred French expats who live in Seoul, and the proliferation of these hip new places is often attributed to the chic population’s influence, though the famous Paris Croissant bakery, which reportedly sells authentic French bread with imported French flour, feels more uniquely Korean than French (more on that in a later post).
Dining al fresco in Korea used to mean eating at a plastic tarp-covered pojang-macha, sitting on cheap stools if you got a seat at all. SuhBuhl is sleeker. The furniture is all blond wood, clean lines, but not overly designed or luxe. There’s actually a rolled-up curtain of plastic on the open terrace, which is filled with traditional low tables where diners sit on the floor, though with those neat cut-outs I love under the tables for diners’ legs.
It’s a comfortable place with surprisingly comfortable food, despite its reputation for fusion cooking. There’s a whole page devoted to makgeolli, the fizzy Korean rice wine, and an extensive wine menu. Unlike many Korean wine bars, they actually sell wine by the glass, even if it’s only one white and one red. (The white was very serviceable for a warm night.)
The menu is divided into salads, different kinds of meats, and stews, all remniscent of Korean food, especially Korean drinking food, but with small, surprising changes. I would have loved to try more of the menu, but four of the dishes was more than enough for the four of us, since they were in classic Korean drinking food portions.
We started with the tofu sesame salad, which was very plain but also quite fresh. Korea has an incredible variety of greens and sprouts, and it was a good, crisp contrast to our other, richer dishes.
The fried chicken in black sesame sauce was my favorite. Both this and the sweet and sour pork dish were fried right, completely dry and with a crust strong enough to stand up to the sauce without getting soggy. The fried chicken actually tasted quite a bit like traditional sweet and sour Korean-Chinese food, but with a slightly nutty flavor. My sister thought it was a bit sweet, but I have a soft spot for anything that reminds me of my childhood sweet and sour favorite, tangsooyook, and there wasn’t a hint of gooeyness or gluey-ness in the sauce.
One touch that felt very Korean to me were the plentiful vegetable garnishes, even on the meaty main dishes. There were also nice pickles that were not kimchi. Most Korean bar food isn’t very herbaceous since the craving for fat that comes with being drunk doesn’t normally include a craving for salad. But Korean food for me is at its best when there are strong contrasts between fatty and crisp, rich and acidic. The steak in a spicy gochujang sauce didn’t feel so Korean, mainly because the beef was rare and tender and the sauce not fiery hot, but the enormous bed of soybean sprouts and zucchini did. The fried garlic on top was a nice touch, especially in the quantity. You can see that there’s an attention to plating (which in itself is not foreign to Korean cooking as bright colors and garnishes are important), but it’s not at all fussy.
This was probably the least interesting dish, even if it was, like the fried sesame chicken, quite tasty. I should have looked more closely at the menu, but I think it may have been fried with sweet rice flour, which would explain its nice chewiness. In fact, as tangsooyook, I would have been thrilled. Not too much sauce, dry fried. It was probably a bit too similar to the fried chicken dish, not that that stopped me from eating plenty of it. It’s the kind of food you could eat a piece of every couple of minutes all night long, especially if you’re in a drunken stupor.
We were not. Our normally hard-drinking cousins were abstaining from anything stronger than beer and wine, and only in small doses. There are so many good places to eat in Seoul, I’m not sure I would rush back, but it’s such a pleasant space and the kind of place you could happily bring a date or a visiting friend or even kids — there were quite a few families eating when we got there. The food wasn’t as expensive as you might think, with each dish hovering in the 20,000 won range and big enough to feed many, though with drinks I’m sure the bill would add up. And I would love to take a crack at that list of makgeolli.
수불: 서초구 반포동 88-6, 영창 빌딩 1층, (02) 3478-0886
Suhbuhl: Seocho-gu, Banpo-dong 88-6, Youngchang Building 1st Floor, tel: (02) 3478-0886.