Horse sashimi is just the startI have long been a fan of izakaya, or Japanese-style bars ― those tiny, cozy, ill-lit places, usually with bulbous red lanterns outside, that have been a feature of many Seoul neighborhoods since the colonial period. Problem: The food served at many is ― to be blunt ― crap. But izakaya are the Nipponese equivalent of British pubs, and frankly, the grub in certain pubs is swill designed solely to soak up beer. But Britain also has the currently a la mode gastro-pubs ― establishments offering the informal and convivial ambience of a public house, while placing food, not beer, at center stage.
So it is with izakaya. While many are places only to drink, one local izakaya offering informal but fine food, prepared by an imported Japanese chef, for the last four years is Jjeukkusi.
It is set just down a side street off the main road running through the lively Sookmyung Women’s University district, near the USO. Outside are red lamps, and a sign saying “udon & tonkatu” in English.
The dining area is elbow-to-elbow with tables. At the front, a tree grows up through the floor and out through the roof. Pictures and pieces of Japanese bric-a-brac are scattered about and pasted up in a pleasingly haphazard way. Upstairs is a smaller dining area. Here, seating is on the deck; as it is much less noisy, crowded and smoky than below, this is the place to come with kids.
The core concept of an izakaya is that you don’t order individual, main dishes; instead, you order a selection of smaller, shared dishes ― hence, this review is in list format. And I should add that they have some pretty unique stuff.
Take mal sashimi (raw horse meat), at 14,000 won ($12), for example: This is a dish you don’t get every day. It is a small serving of chilled, very red meat; in texture, similar to raw tuna, and in taste, rather like lean beef, but very soft. It is garnished with minced garlic and a wedge of lemon; which really ups the flavor. First class.
Ojingeo tempura (10,000 won) proves to be very, very lightly battered slices of clean, white squid. Forego the soy sauce and dip it in salt. Again, very good.
Dubu yori (7,000 won) is chunks of tofu, lightly deep-fried, in an oil sauce, coated with dried fish skins (katsubushi). Despite ― or perhaps because of ― its simplicity, it is outstanding.
Twaeji gogi ginang jorim (7,000 won), slices of lean, white pork braised in a dark, soy glaze, proves another outstanding dish.
Jjuggu jjang bong (9,000 won) is a Japanese version of a Chinese mixed stew. It is a generous bowlful, stuffed with seafood, chicken and vegetables, but the actual broth is the star of the show: simply delicious.
Bokkeum soba (8,000 won), a mess of fried buckwheat noodles mixed with fish skins, green peppers and sundry other ingredients, is the only dish that gets the thumbs-down. The (strong) tastes did not really gel.
As for liquid refreshment, there are 34 items on the booze menu: sakes, sojus and plum wines, prices ranging from 7,000 won up to a couple hundred thousand. Service from the young waitresses was very friendly, and they even speak some English, as well as Japanese and Korean. They will do their best to decipher the menu for you.
Verdict: This place is popular among some of Seoul’s top chefs and is widely known in gourmet circles. The wife, who moves in such circles, took a bit of convincing before she would finally agree to take me here, and I can see why: it’s a gem. But a word of warning. While the prices of individual dishes appear reasonable, be careful how many you order ― it all adds up. Common sense? Perhaps, but beware: You may want to keep on ordering and eating without considering the cost. Dangerous, but delicious.
English: None on menu; some spoken.
Tel.: (02) 755-1213.
Location: Namyeong-dong, central Seoul.
Subway: Namyeong Station, line No. 1.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon