A new twist on an old favoriteA new kind of Korean restaurant is born: make-your-own jeon.
Jeon, grilled patties that can be made from beans, beef, fish, mushrooms and other vegetables, has been part of the Korean diet for centuries. These days, they’re found mostly in markets, at street stalls and at traditional restaurants that cater to an older clientele, who enjoy not just the taste but the nostalgic aura. Typically, at these restaurants, you’ll find diner-style interiors and ajumma frying jeon one at a time, on a lard-greased pan.
Jeonya, a new restaurant in Namyeong-dong in northern Seoul, takes a different approach to jeon: you and your friends make it yourself, at the table.
The owner, Shin Hyoun-kyoung, said he discovered traveling abroad that the only foods Korea was known for internationally were meat barbecue, such as galbi and bulgogi, and kimchi. Yet jeon ― simple, tasty, flexible and a Korean favorite ― is essentially unknown elsewhere.
In Tokyo, Mr. Shin encountered restaurants where customers made their own okonomiyaki, a Japanese patty similar to jeon. He thought a Korean version would do well among young people here who look at dining out as a kind of entertainment. This is the idea behind Jeonya.
Unlike old-style jeon restaurants, Jeonya’s smallish interior is clean, modern and a bit arty. The sound of a bubbling stream, and the chirping of toy birds, are constant. Your party sits around a table with a built-in pan, you don bibs and take up spatulas and you begin.
Each order arrives as mix in a bowl. The staff offers instructions: Grease the pan with vegetable oil; pour out the contents of the bowl and spread it around; add oil as needed so it doesn’t stick, and cook until both sides are brown and crispy.
As a starter or on the side, a plate of fresh mushroom (4,000 won) is wonderful ― slices of the boletus, oyster and enokitake varieties. As each slice sizzles and gives off its distinctive aroma, just being there feels festive. Dip each morsel in sesame oil and soy sauce, and bite into the taste of real nature; the stress of the day seems to vanish.
In the haemul bindaetteok (11,000 won), or jeon with seafood and mung beans, we spotted shrimp, squid, green onion and button and oyster mushrooms. Bindaetteok tastes best when top-grade beans (domestic, not imported) are freshly ground, cooked immediately and eaten on the spot, and that’s what you get here.
Yachae pajeon (8,000 won), made from chopped green onion, beef and gosari or bracken, in egg-and-flour batter, is appetizingly colorful. Dubu kimchijeon, (7,000 won), featuring crushed tofu, chopped kimchi, clam and beef, is very tasty with slightly spicy, chewy kimchi bits. Mr. Shin says the secret is in how heavily the kimchi is fermented.
Jeon is perfect with drinks and conversation; the alcoholic options here include the traditional grain liquor makkeolli (5,000 won), draft beer (2,000 won for 500 cc) and rice wine (7,000 won). For a more nutritious meal, you can order seafood fried rice (6,000 won) after the jeon course. Steamed rice, bean sprouts, chopped mushroom, bell pepper, mussels and shortnecked clams, sesame oil and roasted seaweed flakes arrive in beautiful ceramic dishes imported from Japan.
Cook it any way you like it; if you’re feeling like a teppanyaki chef, start tossing with those two spatulas. The rice is delicious and filling.
Mr. Shin says this cook-it-at-the-table formula has gotten a good response from customers in their 20s and 30s. “Customers are creative with their patties in all shapes and thicknesses,” his wife adds. “Some customers spread the entire batter onto the grill, while some make jeon like cookies.”
For tables of three to four, “party menus” are offered (16,000 won to 34,000 won) that offer additional entertainment besides cooking. One menu titled “Life Altering Patties,” for example, comes with a complimentary lottery ticket. Another, “Heungbu and Nolbu Patties, ” named after a popular fable, comes with two kinds of jeon, one made by a poor man, Heungbu (vegetables only), and the other by a rich man, Nolbu (meat and seafood).
“We might have disappointed older customers, who are used to being served,” Mr. Shin acknowledges.
“But I’ve seen young customers take pictures of the food they’re cooking and post them on their personal Web sites.”
English: Some spoken.
English menu: Available.
Location: From subway line No. 4, exit 6, walk toward Namyeong Samgeori.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-midnight. Closed Sundays.
Telephone: (02) 749-0252.
Parking: 3,000 won per hour at nearby lots.
by Ines Cho