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a neo-Korean outlier – Jung Sik Dang

So honeymoon done and its back to Korea with a bang and Jung Sik Dang. This restaurant brings out controversial feelings in me. I first visited in Spring 2011 on a three day break to Seoul. Some two months later I relocated to Seoul from Hong Kong partially inspired by its magnificent neo-Korean food and excited by everything Seoul had to offer.

Now Seoul hasn’t disappointed but Jung Sik Dang sold me a lie. It was not my first discovery of a whole batch of secret modern Korean brilliance. It was the only one.* If you want cutting edge Korean food go to New York or Los Angeles with restaurants like Danji, Momofuku Ko and, yes, Jung Sik Dang. All of those restaurants have Korean-American CIA-trained cutting edge chefs and cook, to some extent, neo-Korean food. There are also a raft of Korean American chefs such as Edward Lee and Sang Yoon doing Americana brilliantly.

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And Korea… erm… it has Hyun Seok Choi from ELBON the Table who based on my meals wants to do quasi-molecular food but can’t pull off the basics let alone riff off them.

It is indicative to look at the Zagat guide for Seoul and its top 20 restaurants for food. Eight are Japanese, five are French or Italian, three are ‘steak’, one is Chinese and three are International. What is missing? Korean food. Not a single restaurant in the top 20 restaurants that Seoul diners rate for food is Korean.

Jung Sik Dang, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

And the really sad thing is that having been to half of those non-Korean restaurants in the Zagat list not a single one of them is even good (via work not personal choice). Generally speaking the non-Korean food in Seoul is, quite frankly, abysmal. For some reason it is the non-Korean restaurants which have the prestige and are where people want to eat and experiment but what they deliver is laughable by international standards. Shanghai, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo etc. are all decades ahead.

 So what the hell does this mean if you are dining in Seoul as a visitor?

Jung Sik Dang, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

First, after Jung Sik Dang give up on modern or technical Korean food.

Jung Sik Dang, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

Second, do not waste your time on European or Asian food in Seoul as it is terrible. Some very high and very expensive Japanese restaurants are passable but Tokyo is only a hour or sos flight away. Non-Korean food is nascent in Seoul and will remain bad for the foreseeable future as the produce doesn’t exist and can’t be bought for love or money and the technical training is absent.

Jung Sik Dang, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

Third, and most importantly keep it cheap and keep it grotty. Seoul has a lot of good food, however it is resolutely Korean and it is absolutely not to be found at the more expensive places. The best meals I have had are at unassuming places and in the hands of locals who know us well enough that tablecloths are not required and plastic stools are great.

Jung Sik Dang, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

The problem for this blog is that those meals are the ones I have over lunch with my work colleagues (where I can’t heft a DSLR) or are impromptu and never to be discovered or translated again. So, its going to be difficult but this meal at Jung Sik Dang has re-inspired me to spend the rest of this year eating at its exact opposites and trying to scribble down their addresses.

Finally, Jung Sik Dang this revist was great. Starters and desserts were outstanding. Mains were attempting to play with sous-vide techniques a bit too much and had the tendancy to flatten out the flavours in the octopus and pork mains. In particular, the octopus main came out like grilled rubber due to the use of sous-vide prior to the grilling dessicating it. Still I love the place. Visit it.

  • Address – Sinsa-dong 649-7, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (+82 2 517 4654) / TeJc Gmap link here
  • Price – KRW 800,000 for four with wine with tasting menus at KRW 100,000 to 130,000

*I’ve heard from people I trust that Poom is also good though I haven’t been. I’ll rectify that shortly.

5 Comments

  1. Mike C.

    hi, first wanted to say congrats and that I love your blog.
    I came to Seoul 2 years ago thinking the korean food here has got to be better than the places in NY or LA.
    But sadly, I agree with most of what you posted.
    Love the grotty places, but the high end places always leave me thinking I paid that much money for that?!?!

    Was glad Korea finally had some international fare like Vietnamese, Mexican, Indian places (almost non existant just 5 years ago)…
    Well, I guess it’s better than nothing.
    Still searching for a good low-mid priced Bistro type French place

    • Hey Mike thanks for your reply and glad to hear I am not going mad. I am absolutely at a loss at how the high end places have customers/ keep going. I am forced to go to them a fair bit with work and have never had a good meal despite them being the supposed best restaurants in Seoul.

      On international fare, I think we got here too recently from Hong Kong/ Europe so I can’t quite accept eating it yet. We tend to bring in a lot of produce from Hong Kong as Jen travels there for work quite a lot.

      Finally, any tips you have on great local places would be much appreciated.

      Finally finally, good low priced French bistro… I think that is 5 years away very sadly!

  2. At least the street-level food is good. To be honest, i’m tired of fine dining with its prissy, fussy take on food. Give me something a little more rough, ready and punchy (in terms of flavour) any time. Imagine what it would have been like if it were all McD’s…

    That said, I’m surprised that the Japanese food is not more widely excellent. I always had it in my head the Korea would have plenty of great Japanese joints.

  3. nulle

    couldn’t you just mark the GPS locations of the places you eat? or take a photo from a phone camera? iPhone and the Nokia N/E-Series takes pretty good photos on a whim.

    I tend to agree with you…Koreans excel in Korean food and couldn’t even get american food correct..

  4. I do but then I have no desire to go back there in the evening with Jen as that is where I work… Also Samsung/ COEX is a pretty boring area to hang around in the evening as everyone leaves to go home. It is only good for work lunch!

    Still, I am going to heft in my camera I think tomorrow as want to do a post on my favourite sprout soup place!

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