At long last, the Greeks plant a flag in SeoulNowhere in Seoul is so diverse a range of international eating houses packed into so tiny an area as you will find in the otherwise entirely nondescript alley behind Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel.
First there was Korea’s original Pakistani restaurant, Moghul; then, in 1997, the Chinese-American restaurant Ho Lee Chow opened here ― followed in short order by Seoul’s best French bistro (St. Ex), a boozer offering the capital’s widest range of draught beers (Three Alleys Pub), the city’s first and only Indonesian eatery (Bali), arguably the most stylish location in town for al fresco wining and dining (Gecko’s Garden) and more. The tradition continues: Last month, this back street was the scene of the opening of Korea’s first real Greek restaurant, Santorini’s.
It was long overdue. While there have been one or two places serving gyros and/or souvlaki, Greek cuisine ― one of the most popular in the Western culinary canon ― was otherwise unrepresented here. With the Olympic Games about to return to its spiritual home, Athens, and Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and the rest about to bring Homer’s Troy back to life on the big screen, this is the year of the Greeks. Now Seoulites can celebrate these events with a full menu.
Set on a second floor, Santorini’s is a smallish place, with some 34-odd seats. The best are at the veranda-style open window at the back. Alas, this does not overlook the wine-dark sea, but does offer a fair vantage over the Itaewon drag. The walls are white-stucco effect and faux brickwork; hanging thereon is a range of colorful crockery depicting Aegean fishing villages ― the kind of thing everyone brings back from a holiday in the Greek islands. I suspect that the management would not take kindly to these being hurled in the air and smashed, as is the style in Greek festivities, though.
Menu is extensive: four pages, covering a range of meats and seafoods. But things begin badly. An order of taramasalata to begin with? Sorry, sold out. Oh. Well, surely a glass of ouzo is available? Er, no ― that is sold out too. (To be fair, when we visited, they had been open a mere two weeks.) From here on, though, things get better.
For appetizers, at 7,500 won ($6.30), it is cheese pie ― a delicacy with a very long history in Greece. The examples here are textbook, island-style pies: soft cream cheese with garlic and pepper encased in delicate, golden filo pastry, a lovely combination of textures and tastes. A small side salad accompanies this, dressed in taziki, or garlic and cucumber yogurt sauce ― excellent.
Octopus salad is a light starter for 11,000 won. The mollusk is swimming in glistening olive oil, flavored with green pepper, olives and onions ― a typically Aegean or Mediterranean dish, and refreshingly different from the Asian-style octopus or cuttlefish dishes otherwise available in Seoul.
For mains it is moussaka (17,000 won) and gyros souvlaki steak (19,000 won). The moussaka is a large, square serving of minced meat with a thick topping of gratineed beshamel cheese, on a base of eggplant with a nicely oily tomato sauce. Substantial and enjoyable, and way better than most of Seoul’s lasagnas. The meat dish offers a couple of kofte-style minced patties, nicely peppered, and a vegetable and rice compote as a side dish, plus a side salad with taziki and fries. But what is most outstanding is the chunks of pork (not steak ― but never mind). These are flame-grilled and crisped; is there any meat more delicious than crackling pork fat? I think not ― terrific stuff. (Note to self: On next visit, be sure to order one of the pork or lamb dishes).
For pud, it has to be baklava and milk pie (each 7,000 won). The baklava is nicely layered, thickly coated in syrup and sprinkled with nuts and almonds. Fine, though I personally find Balkan and Middle Eastern desserts such as this cloyingly sweet. The milk pie is, again, topped with syrup and diced almonds, and is served with strawberries (good) and aerosol whipped cream (not so good). Both are best balanced with a strong Greek coffee. A limited range of wines and beers are also available, although, as noted, there was no ouzo when we visited.
My only real complaint (apart from the lack of some of the basics) is the slowness of service. Expect a very leisurely meal, and a long interval between your arrival and that of your grub ― which then arrives all at once. Service is friendly and attentive, especially toward sprogs and sproglets.
If you were wondering about the name, it is one of the Greek Islands ― St. Ireni. This also happens to be the name of the owner/manager, Ireni Choi, a rather charming Greekophile who has visited the nation some 10 times. After her last trip she returned with a Greek chef in tow, and a new restaurant was born.
Verdict: I am not sure if I am enamored of this place because the food is good or because I am simply so delighted to see Greek cuisine here at last. (It could even be the attractive waitresses, I suppose.) But whatever the reason, it’s recommended.
Menu: In Cryllic, English and Korean.
Telephone: (02) 790-3474~5.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. daily.
Location: Itaewon, in the alley behind the Hamilton Hotel.
Subway: Itaewon Station, line no. 6, exit 1.
Parking: None to speak of.
by Andrew Salmon