When I do food tours, I always try to get to know my guests as much as possible before the tour starts. I ask guests if they have any dietary restrictions or food allergies, if they can handle spicy food, and how adventurous they are. With the adventurous question, I make a joke about how we could try live octopus or bugs. Some people want to. It scares the heck out of others. But the most important question that I ask is what country and nationality they are. The answers my guests give to these questions will determine the restaurants I choose for the food tour. If my food tour group is made up of primarily Japanese, I know that I have to change the order and the type of restaurants that I choose. The Japanese were the first group of tourists to discover Korea because of the Hallyu (Korean culture wave) and proximity. The Japanese travel books or “mooks” explain in painstaking detail on how to find different shops and restaurants. The Japanese tourists required me to think differently, to really go off the common path and to find restaurants and chefs that had a special “x-factor” that made them different from the rest. I found that the common misconceptions about the Japanese such as not being able to eat spicy food or shared foods were not applicable. The problem they had was with bad food or boring food. So where which restaurants would I recommend for the Japanese? Here is a short list with explanations.
Located in the food section of the new Gran Seoul Mall near Jongak station, this is a high-end beef restaurant with an upscale atmosphere, food styling, service, and great food. Even though they have a decent wine list, Han6gam doesn’t charge corkage so connoisseurs can pair the beef with whichever wine they have in their cellar. Their Korean beef is pristine, very high quality, dry-aged, and marbled like snowflakes. It’s not cheap. They use a fine oak charcoal to grill the meat at the table; sauces and dips such as fresh wasabi, mustard and sea salt; and salads, kimchi and side dishes to go with the meal. The service is curt and professional, but trying to do French-style service for barbecue is quite counter-intuitive. We had the server cook our meat at a separate table so she wouldn’t hover over us. I feel that part of the excitement of eating Korean barbecue is having the meat cooked in front of me.
B1 of the Gran Seoul Mall, Cheongjin-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Hong Yeongjae Cheonggukjang
Started by a famous doctor that cured his terminal cancer through a healthy diet based on fermented soybeans, this restaurant finds many ways to introduce soybeans through their dishes. My favorites included their tomato and soybean dish, salad with apples and fermented soybean, fried fish with soybean paste sauce, and their soybean soup. Even though there was a lot of soybean in the dishes, I never felt that it was overpowering. All the dishes, including their squid-ink octopus, were interesting and well presented. The atmosphere was a bit nouveau-riche for me, but I feel for Asian customers it would be fine. The private rooms are great for meetings and family gatherings.
Hong Yeongjae Cheonggukjang
Sajo bldg, #424, Yeongdongdae-ro Gangnam-gu, Seoul / +82-2-548-8340
Located in Samcheong-dong, this is a cute little place that has dosiraks (Korean lunch boxes, which are like bentos). Their bento menu changes regularly and they do great jeon (savory pancakes). This place is located in Samcheong-dong and while it is quaint, the food is good and they have a decent makgeolli (Korean rice wine) selection. The service is nice, the place is clean, and the price is just right.
# 109-3, Gye-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
If you are looking for gourmet gimbap (Korean roll), then this is the place. The ingredients are local and organic. They use all of the best quality ingredients including the rice, the seaweed, the veggies, the soy sauce, and even the ham. Teacher Kim prides itself in getting the best ingredients and putting it all together artistically to create amazing, gourmet gimbap. The stores are staffed with legions of workers who painstakingly grill, chop, and roll the gimbap. They have a creative range of gimbap such as spicy pork gimbap, cream cheese gimbap, fried gimbap and bulgogi (beef in soy sauce) gimbap. Teacher Kim has elevated this common everyday food.
Hyundai Department Store, Apgujeong-dong 29-gil 71, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Tong Dwaeji Jip
This is for those looking for a real Korean experience with the locals. Located in the side streets of Jongno 3-ga station Exit 6, this little pork belly place has an old time, local feel to it. Service is curt and brash and they offer a simple pork menu. You can get pork jowl, pork neck, and pork belly. Their specialty is the pork belly, which are good thick cuts that are seared on gas griddles. The sourcing of ingredients is very good. They have clean and fresh garlic, leaves, kimchi, and chilies. The pork is of good quality as well. Even though the place looks like hell, the food is delicious and the atmosphere is authentic.
#17-1, Donui-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Bars and Drinking Place & Dessert
Story of the Blue Star and Nuruk Maeul Sul Pub has been popular in Japan for some time while the craze in Korea has fallen a bit. However, there are still good places to get makgeolli. To get the local flavor in a Korean hanok (Korean traditional house), I recommend Story of the Blue Star in Insa-dong. This place has great tofu and kimchi and other side dishes with amazing makgeolli from Sangju County. For organic, artisan made makgeolli on site, Nuruk Maeul Sul Pub is an excellent place. They have a range of craft makgeolli, rice wines, fruit wines, and liquors. To go with the alcohol, the restaurant offers a range of meat and vegetable dishes such as yukhoe (beef tartare), bossam (boiled pork), and savory pancakes. This upscale eatery is a great place to relax with friends over a few drinks.
Story of the Blue Star: #118-15, Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul / +82-2-734-3095
Nuruk Maeul Sul Pub: #67-2, Yangjae-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul / +82-2-579-7710
Even though Korea is not known for desserts. Recently, the snow flake dessert trend has been booming. My favorite place to get it is from Sulbing, which has fine ice that is like sweet, milky, freshly fallen snow. Their famous bingsu (ice flakes) is their injeolmi bingsu, which has roasted bean and nut powder over the ice with almonds and chewy rice cakes. They are constantly making new types of shaved ice such as strawberry, mango, sweet potato, and more.
#385-37, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul / +82-2-323-3288
Park Sung Eun firstname.lastname@example.org
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