Cuban revolution brews in Seoul

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Cuban revolution brews in Seoul

An Irish pub opened last year at a prestige location in downtown Seoul. At the outset, it offered Irish food, Irish staff and Irish music. Several months later, the Irish were gone. Stew and potatoes disappeared from the lunch buffet -- replaced by such classic Dublin dishes as kimchi and kimbap. The only Irish elements remaining now are the decor and the Guinness -- and to add insult to injury, the price of the latter has shot up, too.

Considering this, there is something comforting about a Cheongdam-dong restaurant that bills itself simply as "Cuban Cuisine." When your key selling point is so baldly stated, surely, it will not be downgraded to a local buffet in half a year?

The door in is a great wooden Spanish monstrosity; inside are black-and-white tiled floors, yellow walls and powder blue ceilings. Chandeliers add extra ambiance; if it were a little more down at heel, one could easily picture a large, bearded American in the corner, dressed in shabby khakis, declaiming loudly in his cups on bullfighting and marlin fishing.

Menu offers -- surprise, surprise -- Cuban cuisine: a mix of Spanish and Afro-Caribbean dishes and ingredients. Dinner sets are 25,000, 38,000 and 39,000 won ($21, $28, $39); a bit steep for a communista, but pretty reasonable for this neighborhood. We dine a la carte.

The bread basket offers lightly spiced breads accompanied by dips. There is balsamic vinegar, crushed capers in oil and guacamole. I'm no expert on Latin cuisine, but the latter is the best I have sampled: rich and fierily piquant. We commence with black bean soup (4,500 won); this is a very soft, creamy version, not unlike an Indian black daal.

For mains: Roast pork (16,000 won), seafood paella (18,000 won) and shredded beef (18,000 won). The pork is four large slabs of meat, marinated, Cuban style, in orange juice and then roasted. While no doubt authentic, the combination of citrus and meat just doesn't do it for me.

The paella, however is classic. The Gulf Stream offers Cuba a fine range of seafood, and here the yellow rice is wet and brimming with the catch of the day: squid, mussels, white fish and shrimp. Excellent.

The beef (ropa vieja, literally, "old rags") is cooked with peppers, onions, tomatoes and white wine, and served with crisp shavings of plantains. Rich and tasty.

Side dishes include black bean rice, roast potatoes, sauteed spinach and tostones (double-fried plantains), and range from 1,500 to 2,000 won. The spinach is excellent, the rest good -- except for the plantains, which live up to their reputation for starchy blandness.

To drink, there is that classic concoction, the mojito. Papa himself used to drink this by the gallon in the hostelry Bodeguita del Medio in Havana. It's an unbeatable combination: What gin is to tonic, lime juice is to rum. Served with chopped herbs, on the rocks, the sharp zing of citrus sets off the rich sweetness of the rum.

Finally, dessert is Spanish custard (4,500 won), complete with sponge island, served with a hole twig of cinnamon. No complaints. Service is charming and child friendly.

Verdict: Recommended dining. Proof that, although South Korea is not necessarily widening its political affiliations -- Fernando Gonzalez, the chef, arrived in Seoul via Miami -- it's broadening its culinary horizons. "I'm here to represent Latin and Caribbean culture and cuisine," Mr. Gonzalez says. So, let's pray management stick to their guns, and keeps Cuban Cuisine. Now that would be revolutionary.

by Andrew Salmon
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