Islamic sunshine in Itaewon

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Islamic sunshine in Itaewon

Globally, the Pax Americana may rule the waves, but here in Seoul, Itaewon continues to shrug off its hitherto all-American image and diversify.

Case in point: Mere minutes from the gates of the U.S. 8th Army base, at the entrance to Itaewon's main street, sits the resolutely Islamic "Alsaba" (Morning Sunshine). The purpose of this business is twofold. Firstly, Persian carpets are sold. Inhabitants of the Gulf have long been renowned for weaving magic into carpets and those offered here have the workmanship one expects, although the owners do not guarantee that their wares will save you on airfares. But if it is your palate which wants to take flight, check out the neighboring business, Alsaba Islam Restaurant.

The dining room here has a low ceiling and red wood floors. Carpets and other Muslim ornamentation -- brass pots, plates, daggers and lanterns -- make up the decor. Middle Eastern folk-pop entices the ears, catchy sounds, custom designed to make one's belly sway (navel sapphires not supplied, sadly). There is also an upstairs section, complete with glass-enclosed balcony. The whole is an unusually compelling combination of exotic, attractive and cozy -- and is certainly more up-market than competing Itaewon establishments.

And more expensive. A glance at the carte suggests that this fare is aimed at those whose wealth is of the monetary, rather than the spiritual variety, as a 10 percent plus 10 percent VAT/service double-whammy raises the stakes.

The extensive menu is fully halal, offering a broad range of Pakistani dishes. We begin with chana dahl takka (9,000 won, or $7), lentils with onion, ginger, garlic and spices. The lentils are not crushed, and there is a touch of mint or cardamom in the dish. Result? Admirable textures, zesty flavors. Aloo palik (9,000 won) is a thick, dark and strong flavored mix of fresh potatoes and spinach. So far, so good, but Tandoori Chicken (13,000 won for half a bird) proves bland; best suited for children.

The piece de resistance is alsaba ran (45,000 won for two; 65,000 won for three; 99,000 won for six). This is lamb on the bone, served in curry sauce, preceded by salad and accompanied by nan bread. The salad is lettuce, cucumber, tomato and onion, dressed in a lightly spiced oil, marking a refreshing change from the usual drenching of balsamic vinegar or "Thousand [sic] Islands" dressings Seoul's diners are usually forced to endure. The nan breads are thick and doughy, topped with roasted sesame seeds, which impart a toasty flavor. The lamb is faultless. It arrives on a steaming griddle, nestled in a bed of onions. It is dark, flavorful meat -- "the nearer the bone, the tastier the meat" as the saying goes -- and comes easily off the bone. Having been marinated for 18 hours, it is extremely tender, and the sauce is pleasantly, rather than fiercely, spiced.

Finally, dessert. The fernee (4,000 won) is a milk and rice pudding, flavored with almonds and pistachio. How good is it? Witness the following conversation:

Father (pleading): "Can Daddy try a little?"

Three-year-old daughter (emphatic): "No."

After wrestling a spoonful away from the little darling, I can reveal that this is the best pudding I have eaten in any of Seoul's halal and subcontinental restaurants.

Service is child-friendly and English is spoken by the Korean and Pakistani co-owners. We had a "dry" meal on the assumption that, given the Muslim credentials, this would be a booze-free zone. But in fact, a range of beers, wines and whiskeys are offered. We'll know next time.

Verdict: Dishes here are rich, moderately spiced and hearty; just what the doctor ordered with winter around the corner. Prices are not cheap, but considering that ingredients (and chefs) are imported, they are not outrageous. And in these days of clashing civilizations, it is heartening that friendliness, not fundamentalism, rules Itaewon's dining tables.

by Andrew Salmon

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