Simple, pleasing Japanese fareIt used to be the case that if you were eating Japanese in Seoul, you were eating sushi or sashimi ― and paying with an arm and a leg. That particular dining tradition hasn’t disappeared ― stratospherically priced sashimi shops retain their popularity among platinum card holders ― but nowadays, if you want to eat Japanese, more humble fare is available at prices that won’t empty your bank account.
Kitaro in Sinsa-dog is just such a place. It’s set in a basement beside a side street off the main road. However, anyone expecting to step into a magical cavern serenaded by a long-haired, new-age flutist in baggy white togs will soon be disappointed.
It’s a midsized place, with standard decor: black tables, a rack of Japanese comic books, a wooden sake bar draped with banners, and to one side, a private room with floor seating. The menu offers down-to-earth Japanese chow with nary a raw fish in sight. There are noodles and rice dishes, lunch sets and a range of sakes.
We begin with miso ramyeon (7,000 won, about $5.60). This is a large, porcelain bowl of yellow noodles in a miso broth, enlivened with bean sprouts and slices of roast pork. It’s hearty stuff and a good value, but we would have preferred a more robust flavor in the miso. Yaki soba (6,500 won) is a very different dish altogether: a mass of fried noodles and vegetables, topped off with fish skins that give it an appealing oceanic aroma. Here’s a tasty dish that offers a fine range of textures.
For a truly authentic Japanese experience, you cannot refuse the natto (6,000 won). This is a traditional dish of fermented soybeans served on a bed of pureed radish, sealed with a raw egg and topped with chopped spring onion. It’s difficult to describe to those who have never eaten it ― an incredibly sticky, coagulated, gooey glop, but with a strong, almost nutty taste, not unlike a Korean doenjang. Though healthy and highly recommended, I concede that it won’t appeal to everyone.
An unusual dish is ojjajeukae (4,500 won) ― rice cooked in green tea. If you like rice and green tea you’ll love it; if you don’t, er, you won’t.
Finally, curry rice (7,000 won). This is a plate of thin, very meaty-tasting curry, with a few specks of red pepper to give it a gentle bite, served with plain rice. Don’t mention it in the same breath as vindaloo. Japanese “curry lite” is to subcontinental curry what a bonsai is to an oak. But if you know what to expect, it is enjoyable.
To drink, there are the usual beers and sojus, but for the sake of the total experience, it has to be sake.
And while there are cheap ’n cheerful versions available, our companions insist upon the pricier Guboda Chunsu (60,000 won). This number apparently won a recent tasting at the Shilla Hotel, and is considered a “grand cru.” It offers a less flowery, more austere taste than its cheaper cousins, and is well suited to the grub.
Service is friendly and extremely child-tolerant ― our daughter was kept quiet with a pack of “For sale in Japan only” candies.
Verdict: Kitaro serves authentic, simple Japanese food in appropriate surroundings. There are no samurai statues, no falling cherry blossoms, no kimonos ― and mercifully, no patrons performing hara-kiri on their wallets.
No English is spoken,
however, the menu
is fully illustrated
Telephone: (02) 514-4966
Address: Nonhyeon-dong 4-10, Basement 1,
Directions: Subway line
No. 3 to Sinsa station,
Hours: Noon-10:30 p.m.
Credit cards: Accepted
Parking: On side streets nearby
by Andrew Salmon