Dining out in Seoul : Traditional Korean, world cuisine, casual dining, fine dining, royal cuisine – whatever your taste buds seek, all can be found in Seoul. This post is part of the restaurant review series here on the Korea Blog.
Like any other world cuisine, it’s impossible to pinpoint a certain style to Korean food. You have the simple cafeteria dishes, the famous sizzling barbeque, the legendary table-sagging southern style bounty, the delectable dishes of traditional royal cuisine, fusion style where east meets west, and new modern interpretations of traditional recipes.
When a traditional dish is presented in a different way, it can be met with resistance, or on the other spectrum, with eager anticipation. I am rather skeptical about dishes that emphasize the newest technique or presentation over substance – how the food actually tastes – but when nothing is sacrificed and all aspects are covered, I am more than happy to try out the new.
Gaehwaok is hidden away in a small alley in the back streets of Apgujeong, unassuming and demure, yet with food full of zest and flavor; it’s like a greedy foodie’s secret that doesn’t want to be told but gets exposed anyway.
The restaurant doesn’t use any gimmicks nor do they have a completely new approach to traditional cuisine, but their food has a subtle yet distinct character that tastes modern, however odd that may sound.
Gaehwaok doesn’t have large tables but assemble places together fitting to the customers’ needs. Although the food has a modern touch, the serving dishes are mostly traditional brass bowls and plates, which are known to keep food hot in winter, cold in summer, sterilize toxins, and preserve nutrients in food. (The tableware is also a hassle to clean and maintain, so I personally give high points to establishments who use them. They’re common in fine dining royal cuisine restaurants, but not so much elsewhere.)
Complimentary appetizers are roasted corn on the cob, sweet potato, and a whole head of garlic. Water is served in wine bottles.
Dinner usually starts with something light.
Oysters on the shell are called seokhwa (석화), “stone flowers”, while regular oysters are called gul (굴). Gaehwaok only offers this dish when the oysters are in season, fresh and at their peak.
Something new to try: innovative and thought-provoking sherbet salad. The sherbet was pineapple flavored and acted as a dressing, adding an interesting twist to the lettuce salad. There was a hint of ginger, and the crisps were crushed for texture. Surprisingly, it wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.
A Korean meal is incomplete without banchan (반찬). The side dishes vary from restaurant to restaurant, but they’re always free of charge. Different kinds of kimchi and myeolchi bokkeum (멸치 볶음, stir fried anchovies) were served. I’m not that fond of myeolchi bokkeum but I liked Gaehwaok’s due to their seasoning and the quality of the myeolchi.
Spicy and watery mulkimchi (물김치) made from mu (무, Korean radish) goes extremely well with meat dishes.
Speaking of meat, Gaehwaok’s reputation comes from their bulgogi (불고기). In fact, it’s written on the store front, that they are a bulgogi place (불고기집). The ex-chefs in our dining group commented how the beef was marinated in an original sauce; the server confirmed this and mentioned that it was an original secret recipe. The bulgogi served at most barbeque and grill restaurants has a tendency to be overly sweet, but there is no saccharine aftertaste in Gaehwaok’s. Plenty of flavor, aromatic, soft texture; I didn’t find myself craving for a bowl of rice as I usually do when eating bulgogi.
Tteokgalbi (떡갈비) is a grilled meat patty made from galbi (갈비, short ribs). It is usually grilled with an accompanying vegetable, usually mushrooms. One thing certain about Gaehwaok is that their seasoning is to the point. Nothing is bland, nothing is overseasoned.
Thin beef shank slices of pyeonyuk (편육) is another specialty. Made from a choice cut, the meat is eaten by wrapping in pickled sesame leaves with added sprigs of spring onions. Sauce is optional.
Yet another meat dish is chadolbagi (차돌박이), often incorrectly called chadolbaegi (차돌배기), a center cut of beef brisket. It is sliced very thinly and grilled, and eaten with vegetables to balance out the fatty goodness.
Pyeongyang style sundae (순대, Korean blood sausage) done the traditional way with sticky rice filling. (The street food sundae usually has glass noodle filling.) It is served with an original sauce, seasoned salt, and green onions. The presentation is impeccable.
After a heavy meat-centered meal, Koreans tend to cleanse their palates not with dessert, but with something crisp and acidic. It’s why naengmyeon (냉면) is an essential part of the menu at Korean barbeque grill restaurants. A popular alternative to naengmyeon is kimchi mari guksu (김치말이국수, kimchi dunked noodles), which is also eaten cold. Koreans say that this dish “settles” the stomach.
Gaehwaok also has a fabulous yukhoe (육회, Korean steak tartare) dish and abalone dishes. For an intimate date or small party, I’d recommend the set menu in order to get a taste of everything, but in the case of larger groups, it’s better to order à la carte.
Their wine list only consists of around 40 selections, but you are allowed to bring your own bottle (BYOB). In lieu of a corkage charge, they charge per glass. At the time of writing they were charging 3,000 won per glass, which is a fairly good deal unless you’re one of those really finicky wine drinkers who must change their glass for every new bottle of wine.
The best thing about Gaehwaok? It’s open 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. No exceptions, no holidays whatsoever. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night snack, midnight munchies, early morning cravings – you want it, you got it.
Gaehwaok has two restaurants: the main restaurant in Apgujeong and another in Garosugil. Unfortunately there is no metro station nearby either and you must take a bus or taxi.
Check out their website for a map and more details:
The English version of the site doesn’t seem to be working at the moment, so click on the main page and then on ‘store’ – the left one is the main restaurant and the right is the one at Garosugil. (Click the written captions and not the images.)
Reservations are a must for normal dining hours.
Editor’s note: Gaehwaok uses an alternative English spelling on their website (Gaewhaok) but I used the first as it is the one on their business card and closer to the original Korean pronunciation.