No baseball, but excellent duckWhat disaster has befallen Korea’s rural aesthetics over the last hundred years?
Look at photos from the early 20th century. Thatched roof cottages, groves of trees and bamboo, totem poles and the occasional walled yangban residence with a curved, tiled roof grace the landscape. Granted, the peninsula was heavily deforested, due to the ravenous ondol, but architecture was attractive to the eye and in synch with the countryside. Today, Seoul’s environs are blighted by scenery of quite breathtaking ugliness.
Take the area around the satellite town of Goyang City, which features dusty back roads, squat, square concrete buildings, corrugated iron-roofed dog farms, muddy, straggly vegetation ― all liberally sprinkled with decomposing garbage. It is a depressing vista.
Our destination is on one of these nondescript back roads, about 20 minutes’ drive from Seoul: Yagu Jang Nongwon, translated as “Baseball Field for Duck Cuisine (!).” Set between what look like a couple of gray warehouses is a large and clean, if plainly designed, building. The restaurant has existed for over 10 years, recently relocating to the rather large building it occupies today. Apparently, the owners were so pleased with the considerable (though hardly enormous) size of their new abode that they thought it resembled a baseball field ― hence the name. Curious, but true. Inside is a canteen-style kitchen, floor seating and a minimalist approach to decor. Nothing much to recommend it thus far, so why are we here? Put simply: the grub.
The menu is limited to one page; it has nothing to do with baseball, but everything to do with duck. Gourmets consider this waterborne fowl “chicken for adults” ― the meat is greasier, darker and stronger tasting. We ― a table of four adults and two sprogs ― order Mud Roast Duck, at 35,000 won ($30), and Smoked Duck (35,000 won). But first come the kimchis. There are eight of these, including a large serving bowl of water kimchi ― cool and refreshing, but so zesty it tastes almost alcoholic. There is also gat kimchi ― gat is a kind of swamp plant, which tastes something like spinach. Then there is a Jeolla province-style cabbage kimchi, swimming in pungent red sauce so powerfully flavored that it tastes redolent, in a sense, of a really strong cheese. There are also chunks of salted radish and sliced green pickled pepper. All in all, a great start to what is rapidly becoming a memorable meal.
The platter of smoked duck is served in thick slices, around a mound of green salad drizzled with a garlic and mustard dressing. The duck itself is smokily delicious; the pink, glazed slices recall a quality smoked ham. The mud roast quacker is cooked in the style of a Chinese “beggar’s chicken” ― heated in mud. Moving from the outside in, the skin is dark with gobbets of fat sticking to it. The meat itself is dark and firm. Inside, are stuffed red bean rice, chestnuts, roots and stewed fruits. With its range of fruity flavors, this rather reminds one of a medieval European Christmas dish. For true Marx Brothers fans, there is also duck soup, but one can have too much of a good thing. We finish with noodles in cold kimchi broth (3,000 won) and noodles in hot broth, with seaweed, deep-fried tofu and a touch of red pepper paste (3,000 won).
To drink, there is beer, soju et al, but more interesting is Deodeok Sool (6,000 won), an herbal fruit wine that actually contains a deodeok (condonopis) root in the bottle. The stuff is the color of scotch, and offers a dark, rooty taste; unlike some of its competitors, it is not at all sweet or syrupy. A good, strong match for the good, strongly flavored duck. Service is fast and seems friendly, but is otherwise not worthy of any special comment.
Verdict: Great food. Ugly journey.
by Andrew Salmon
Directions by road: Take the Chayuro Expressway out of Seoul. At the Haengju Interchange turn right. Drive on until reaching Wondang subway station. Turn left, and drive straight, past the Siksa Rotary, until reaching Donguk University hospital. Turn right up the side road just before the hospital, and follow it to the fork. Take the left; the restaurant is a couple of minutes beyond this, on the left.
Subway: Get off at Wondang subway station, leave by exit 1 and take the Maul (Village) Bus No. 33 to Donguk University Hospital. From there, call the restaurant ― they will pick you up.