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