Your seat at the captain’s tableWhether you are sailing aboard the most luxurious liner or the most decrepit rustbucket, one nautical rule holds true: dining at the captain's table is an honor. Today, with air travel having largely replaced oceanic journeys, this is an increasingly rare experience. But right here, right now, in the heart of this landlocked metropolis, you can dine with the skipper at Choeng-u Chamchi.
Located on a side street a minute of so from the southern end of Hannam bridge, the main feature of this small sashimi establishment is a double-sided wooden bar that seats about 15 diners. (Note: Unlike most Korean restaurants, where dining alone can be uncomfortable, eating by yourself at Choeng-u Chamchi is akin to visiting a British pub. Servers will engage you in conversation and even match drinks with you). There are also three floor tables set on a raised deck. Overlooking these tables are a life-sized poster of a swordfish and photos showing tuna being filleted. Another photo, of a tuna boat heading out to sea, is of central importance to the restaurant. This vessel was once captained by Im Cheong-u, the tall, quiet man you will see expertly slicing and filleting chunks of tuna and swordfish. A tuna boat skipper for eight years, he is now master and commander here, one of Seoul's best tuna houses.
Captain's Im's contacts in the trade have allowed him to bypass middlemen: he sources his tuna and swordfish directly from the dealers. This allows him to offer splendid delicacies at a very reasonable price -- 18,000 per head for as much as you can eat. Here is what transpires during a visit to Choeng-u Chamchi.
Once you have taken a seat, a nest of shredded turnip is heaped on the bar in front of you. Onto this are scattered a handful of pickled onions, pickled ginger and radish, as well as packets of dried, salted seaweed. Then the thick chunks of pink tuna belly and slices of white swordfish steak -- all fresh from the filleting knife -- are laid upon the nest. The banquet begins.
The raw tuna meat glistens pinkly. It is smooth and moist. Even if you are a meat eater, the oily flesh of this prize gamefish will prove to be irresistible: tuna is truly the steak of the sea. The swordfish is firmer, with an arresting texture, but still much "meatier" and more substantial than the flesh of smaller fish.
The tuna and swordfish can be dipped in sesame oil; soy sauce and wasabe are, of course, also available. You also get a bowl of sweet rice and vegetable porridge, sliced cucumbers and carrots, a plate of hot fried potato, a sizzling platter of butter-cooked sweet corn mixed with crab meat and a spicy stew of fish and turnip. You are replenished steadily with fresh cuts of tuna and swordfish. Finally, a plate of grilled tuna arrives. This is part of the muscular tail section; the juicy white meat slides easily off the bone, and the coarse, salty skin is equally good. And let me remind you once more: all this is a mere 18,000 won per head.
No rum is available, but there are the usual offerings: local lager, soju and rice wine (sake). A bottle of the latter, Cheongha, is a very appropriate accompaniment. As mentioned, service is friendly, and the entire atmosphere is relaxed and informal.
Verdict: A convivial little place, serving generous portions of fresh, simple, stripped- down seafood. Sashimi has a reputation of being reserved only for the high-spending elite, and, indeed, there are many much more expensive places serving more delicate and refined cuts -- but this fine establishment proves that any lower deck sea-dog with an appetite can also partake.
No English spoken here; no English necessary.
Dress: Come as you are.
Another view: "I come here at least once a month. Why? Er - because it's delicious." Byeon Jeong-hyeon, 29, salaryman.
Directions: Cross Hannam bridge, from north to south. After exiting the underpass directly after the bridge, there is a line of buildings on the left before the intersection. Cheong-u tuna is on the back street running parallel to the main road behind these buildings.
by Andy Salmon