Rural repast transcends aesthetic horrorsThe low, craggy foothills of Gyeonggi province are stubbled with skeletal forests. Framed against a slate-gray sky, the landscape itself is attractive enough. Then one’s eyes drift downward. Dusty roads snake between stubbly brown fields and culverts that are filled with trash. Concrete bridges traverse gravel-bottomed streams. Dirty buildings of gray cinder block and corrugated iron line the route. Many seem to be factories specializing in lumps of concrete or rusty machinery. As in Seoul, a potentially pretty landscape has been degraded by its inhabitants. For sheer, unadulterated ugliness, I have seen little to match this Gyeonggi village of Namyangju, a mere 30 minutes’ drive from the capital.
Fortunately, our road leads us up, past this squalid settlement. We come to a long, modern house with large windows, with a garden and a couple of wood and straw pavilions outside. (Of particular interest is a straw pyramid at the back. Inside it, sunk into the earth itself, are a number of pots ― of which more later.) Anywhere else, this would be a moderately attractive piece of real estate. Compared to what is a few hundred meters down the hill, it is an aesthetic oasis.
This is the restaurant, “Sup Sogui Cham Joeun Jip.” (Literally, “Very Good House in the Forest.” There are trees on the hill out back, but “forest?” Artistic license, one presumes.) Inside are private and public dining areas, some with tall windows overlooking the garden and the hills beyond. The menu offers several set meals. We order the 20,000-($16)-per-head beef rib barbecue set.
First come appetizers: glass noodles dressed with sesame oil, slabs of steamed pork and kimchi and a Western-style salad. All right, but nothing to leap and shout about. Then the main dish arrives, a platter of sizzling short ribs on a bed of sliced mushrooms. The meat is tender and well marinated in home-made soy. Equally striking are the side dishes ― fried nuts, five kinds of raw wild vegetables and sesame leaves, plus a bewildering variety of pickles: white cabbage kimchi, cool water kimchi, fish kimchi, a crisp plum kimchi, a powerful deodeok root kimchi and some challenging whole green peppers in brine and soy. They range from mild and sweet to intensely pungent; a treat for the bona fide kimchi lover. Just when we think it’s all over, a dish of raw crab in its shell, the gelatinous meat mixed with the trademark soy sauce, finishes things off nicely.
To drink? The house makgeolli, naturally. There are several varieties of this characterful rice beer, served in earthenware bowls. The makgeolli brewed with pine nuts is zesty and smooth, but I strongly recommend the version made with deodeok root. This is a stronger, earthier beast, with the quintessential deodeok nose ― earthy and herby, not unlike ginseng. Brews like this make up for the generally weak and watery bottled lagers that are the curse of the Korean beer lover.
The ajumma who runs the place could not be friendlier ― when she saw yours truly snapping shots of the exterior, she invited me in for coffee gratis, not realizing I was part of a dining party. She also rents a very attractive apartment with fitted kitchen, three bedrooms, large lounge area and French windows overlooking the garden and balcony area. The ski resort of Bears Town is just over the brow of the hill, making this a popular getaway. It goes for 350,000 won per weekend (all inclusive) and can accommodate 13.
Verdict: Our dining companion, TV celebrity chef Yoon Jung-jin states, “The reason the food here is so good is the quality of the house soy sauce.” I will not argue, but would add that the house side dishes here are also top-drawer. These ingredients are, of course, sourced from that straw hut in the garden. And you have to give credit to the owners for striving to overcome the blight their neighbors have visited upon the landscape. If only someone could marinate, pickle and grill Korea’s corps of architects.
Sup Sogui Cham Joeun Jip
Telephone: (031) 527-3310
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily
Address: Gyeonggi province, Namyangju city, Jinjeobeum Paryari.
Directions: Drive from Seoul toward the Gwangneung Country Club; the restaurant is outside the front gate.
Credit cards: Accepted
by Andrew Salmon