1999. the precursor to y2k (remember this?), the ultimatum of the 20th century. it was also the year i immigrated to the stateside. yes i spent half of my life (1987 – 1999) in korea and the other half (2000 – 2012) in the united states. before this entry gets too autobiographical, let me tell you why i am starting it off with this prologue. i returned to korea for the first time since i moved to the states. twelve and a half years to be exact.
the occasion: business trip. as i have mentioned in my opening post, i am an automotive design engineer working at a research and development division for hyundai motor group. the r&d headquarters is based in namyang, korea, employing more than 10,000 engineers in a research and development campus with facilities and a commute system to accommodate all engineers and personnel.
i was placed in a hyundai owned and operated hotel called rolling hills (named after the city’s topographical traits). the hotel is only ten minutes away from the r&d center itself, but an hour and a half from seoul. for this reason, i was only able to go to seoul on the weekends, and there were only two weekends for the 20 days i stayed in korea.
for the first weekend, i was only able to book a hotel in itaewon (pronounced e-tae-won) because i started looking too late. it was an interesting neighborhood with foreigners speaking in fluent korean , bars and restaurants mimicking their foreign counterparts. one that i particularly liked was called london tea. thanks to alice (a fellow michigan graduate foodie blogger!), i was able to get an excellent intro to the dining scene in korea.
31-158 itaewon-dong 1
with a space only big enough to accommodate no more than five small tables, and a kitchen that was shared with the register counter, i was skeptical at first, but only to be blown away by how excellent my french onion soup with gruyère omelette fared! a true gem indeed!
make it two for pleasant surprises in itaewon, i ran into two of my college friends in this very restaurant! what are the odds of this happening? after such pleasant encounter, i headed for garosu-gil which is located in sinsa-dong on the south of han-river.
garosu-gil (pronounced tarot-sue gill with a g instead of t) was my favorite place among the spots that i explored. it reminded me of abbot kinney boulevard of venice beach with hipsters, independent cafès & restaurants, and small boutiques. even though i say that the streets of garosu-gil resembled that of venice beach, everything was koreanized (read: pretty & petite).
thankfully, i was lucky enough have a friend to show me around seoul. we had to cross the river and go north again for the next stop: myeong-dong. this is a place where you swim through a current of tourists and locals alike. you hear shop attendants advertising in all three far eastern languages.
if there is one thing that i painfully regret is not trying any of the food from street vendors. had i grown out of the korean culture in the twelve long years in the states? the chicken and rice stand on 53rd & 6th of the big apple simply has no place in korea. quite a bold statement i know, but that is how good korean street food is (reminiscing grade school years).
the real catch of my seoul expedition was a date. yes a date. again, alice, who recommended london tea, also recommended grano. as with london tea, i wanted to see how italian cucina fared in korea (this one had an italian head chef).
the food was actually too salty to finish. and a trout carpaccio with rocks of sea salt for $40? i don’t think so. the only accolades that this place deserves would be the fine selection of house wines, as it was quite enjoyable. actually my hands were sweating and my heart was palpitating so much for me to even have any appetite. my date was beautiful, and so was the dinner with her. since i didn’t want to take pictures of the food on our first date, i do not have any food pictures.
the following day, i had a sunday brunch with co-workers. i was aware that the pizzeria only had a few spots to sit, so we walked down to the restaurant a few minutes before it opened. we were the first ones to be there, but a crowd of d’buzza fans quickly followed.
when it comes to pizza, i always go with simple construction: burrata & balsamic, mozzarella & basil, prosciutto & rucola (read: arugula, you americans). simple is good and hence was my choice: margherita. while my co-workers got pies that were extravagantly decorated with eggs, bacon, etc., i didn’t want a farmhouse omelette on mine. the tiny brick oven did its magic and the tiny pie fared quite well. but i really wanted my co-workers to experience true korean food and we headed to garosu-gil for the occasion.
we were strolling about garosu-gil looking for a decent place to eat dinner and we happened to find this gem! dal-shiktak (pronounced dal tick-tock with a sh instead of t) served items that were even archaic for natives. one of the items that we ordered was called ‘maekjuk gui‘ (i won’t even help out here), which is pork marinated in fermented soy bean paste (it is better than it sounds) that is predecessor of bulgogi.
the food was superb as was the atmosphere, but if there’s one thing that i would extend my adulation for this establishment would be its decor: brass silverware & porcelain earthenware, the presentation of the side dishes & main entrées, a myriad of bulb-chandeliers and a freaking equestrian lamp! if you happened to be in the area, make sure to give this place a knock!
all in all, the first weekend in seoul was full of surprises and encounters that i will never forget. the journey continues on the second weekend in seoul in part 2.