A grill where discriminating carnivores can chew the fatSome give up smoking. Others forsake drink. Still others forego sex. But the people who are really sacrificing life's pleasures are vegetarians. "Vegetables are interesting, but they lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat," noted American humorist Fran Lebowitz in her book "Metropolitan Life."
Readers who concur with this opinion are fortunate to be in Asia's finest carnivorous capital; the grill house is a predominant feature of Seoul's dining landscape. However, many -- particularly those downtown -- are undistinguished. But not all. Slap in the center of the city, behind City Hall, awaits Cham Sook Goal (Real Barbecue Village).
Set on a second floor, this restaurant makes efforts not to mislead potential diners: There is an enormous poster outside featuring a platter of meat over a fire. Mounting the stairs, you pass a number of framed food reviews, including some in Japanese. Inside is your standard Korean grill house -- thick plain wood tables with inset grills, retractable smoke-sucking pipes dangling from the ceilings, the obligatory unsightly clock and a choice of seating, on the deck or on chairs. Pretty standard, frankly, but everything is spotless, and setting the establishment apart from the commonplace is the butchery in the center. Here is a restaurant that takes the consumption of cow very seriously indeed.
The menu offers a number of cuts of beef, all of it hanu (Korean cattle). The side dishes are fairy standard but well prepared: a bowl of fresh chopped chives in a mustard sauce, a richly spiced, gingery, white cabbage kimchi, a cool and zesty water kimchi and a bowl of garlic cooked over the grill with the meat.
We start with chadeul baki (belly; 25,000 won or $20 a serving). This is lovely red meat -- fine shavings of beef, trimmed with fat -- that cooks fast over the wood charcoal grill and is dipped in salt before eating. It's soft, light and succulent; anyone who insists that only pork fat is tasty will be forced to radically revise their opinions after sampling this.
Kkot deungsim (chargrilled back steak; 30,000 won per serving) is the house flagship. This is a thicker cut of a strikingly crimson steak, with a frosty dusting of fine marbling. It is so juicy and so ultra-tender that eating it borders on an erotic experience.
Finally, a doenjang jiggae (bean paste stew: 5,000 won, serves two) proves a model. Unlike down-market versions that offer little more than a liberal dose of MSG and an overload of red-pepper powder, this is jammed with fresh mushrooms, red and green peppers, spring onions, bricks of tofu and beef on the bone. It's rich, complex, hearty and perfect for the season. For lunch, it's a meal in itself.
As for booze, the usual beers and sojus are available at the usual prices.
Food quality and handy location aside, another selling point here is service. Wait staff are numerous and alert. This is one restaurant where you will never have to shout "Yogiyo!" for attention. The owner is a cheerful old chap with a permanent grin who makes heroic efforts to greet Westerners in English; he gets a lot of trade from foreigners working in the nearby multinationals and embassies.
The downside? Price. Cham Sook Goal is very expensive compared to restaurants serving imported meat. (Informants suggest that blame for the high price of hanu should be directed at the local agricultural cartels -- not restaurants.)
Verdict: A dependable, though costly, center city eatery offering high-quality Korean chargrill. A sign at the entrance reads, "Good Restaurant" -- and I have no beef with that.
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