Posh address, trendy decor and peasant pricesImagine a restaurant with all these things:
1) An address in posh Apgujeong-dong.
2) A spectacular interior, done by a well-known local designer.
3) Set menus under 10,000 won ($8.60).
Clearly, one of these things does not belong. Yet the poetically named Sawore Boribap ― whose name translates roughly as “barley rice in April” ― has them all, and good food, too.
Discovering this restaurant is a great pleasure. It’s in the basement of a nondescript building near the busy Apgujeong subway station. The sign on the street touting its low prices would seem likely to make the Apgujeong-dong crowd pass it by, on the theory that cheap is bad (although, in fact, a lot of fashionable diners seem to have discovered the place). Plus, unlike most trendy restaurants in the area, it doesn’t have English signage. If you don’t read Korean, you’ll need to learn a few characters to find it.
Once you’re inside, the interior ― done by Min Kyung-sik, who designed several prominent restaurants in the capital, including XingKai and Iki Iki in the basement of the Seoul Finance Center ― will amaze you. Exquisitely hand-finished abalone walls in shades from ivory to a willowy green, sleek black lacquered tables and the owner’s antique collection, displayed under glass, gleam in the warm light like a hidden treasure trove. There are private rooms as well as a spacious dining hall; more than 100 diners can sit in the place, on the floor and in chairs.
What makes Sawore Boribap really different is the contrast between this upscale decor and the food, which consists of low-priced, old-fashioned country meals reminiscent of a less affluent time in Korea. Behind this restaurant concept is Oh Jin-kwon, former CEO of the successful Nolboo restaurant chain, the first chain restaurant in Korea to specialize in country-style cooking.
The house speciality is bibimbap, the popular Korean dish mixing rice and assorted vegetables (namul). Unlike most bibimbap, the version here uses boribap, or steamed barley rice. The set meal, priced at 6,000 won, is served with 10 kinds of namul, spicy red pepper paste and seasonal side dishes. The egg that you usually find in bibimbap is not included, nor is beef; in the old days that this restaurant consciously evokes, beef and eggs were luxuries and didn’t appear in the common person’s diet. That’s the same reason the bibimbap is made with barley rice, not white rice, which was less affordable then; however, if you prefer steamed white rice (ssalbap), you can request it.
The second most popular meal here is myeongran boribap (8,000 won). Myeongran is spicy salt-cured roe; mixed with fresh greens and steamed rice, it’s delicious and fresh. On the side, gamjajeon (6,000 won), three pancakes made from potato puree, is a treat from the country: hot, simple and very tasty (and not spicy at all).
Those who want to really be challenged by old-style Korean food can try godeungeo bossam (6,000 won), a large bowl containing an intimidatingly spicy-looking orange lump, giving off a pungent odor. This is a slab of salted mackerel that’s been braised for hours with aged kimchi and radish. Tear off a large leaf of kimchi and wrap the fish meat in it (the word bossam means wrap).
The set meal comes with side dishes: two kinds of kimchi, a plate of fresh lettuce, cabbage and peppers, eoriguljeot (spicy pickled oysters) and a tepid pot of doenjang jjigae, or soybean stew. Cooked with well-fermented soy paste, homemade tofu, aromatic wild herbs and conches, this stew is notably authentic.
Toward the end of the meal, you’ll be served sungnyung, mild and toasty water in which the scorched rice from the bottom of the pot has been soaking. But to complement a meal full of heavily fermented, garlic-laden dishes, something mild and sweet to drink on the side is recommended. A bowl of traditional grain liquor, chapssal dongdongju (8,000 won), is a nice cure for the spicy aftertaste.
English: A little spoken.
English menu: None.
Location: The basement of Gujeong Building at Apgujeong Station, line No. 3, exit 3.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m daily.
Telephone: (02) 540-5292.
Credit cards: Accepted.
Parking: Valet (1,000 won).
Dress: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho