A decent draft beer makes up for a lotHere’s a thing. Koreans love powerfully-flavored food, no? Pungent fermented sauces, tart pickled vegetables, fiery peppers, bitter roots and herbs, raw garlic and so forth.
But when it comes to drinking, things are exactly the opposite. Soju is tasteless, the popular plum and ginseng gins are treacly sweet ― even makgeolli and dongdongju, the traditional ricebrews, are now, I understand, far sweeter than they were in the past. And when it comes to beer ― well, the tastes of local lagers seem to me to be aimed at the palates of the Women’s Temperance League.
So it was with great anticipation that Korea finally allowed brewpubs to open up two years ago. Sadly, most fell short of expectations when the flavor police struck. Under pressure from managers, many brewers here ― largely young Germans on their first-ever assignments ― took to brewing beers with their hop content drastically lowered. It has been a sad thing.
However, that is not to say that a brewpub in a convenient, north-of-the-river location should not be welcomed. And the one we visited is in a location that was ― back in the 1960s and ’70s ― on the cutting edge of the capital’s dining scene: Seoul Station. Those with long memories and deep wrinkles will remember when presidents would dine here simply because it was the only place in town where one could get “Western” ― I use quotation marks advisedly ― meals, such as pork cutlets and steaks. That time has now, thankfully, passed, but the recent redevelopment of the station complex, complete with a modern shopping mall, has brought with it Treins Brau (“Treins family brews” ― named, presumably, on the assumption that “Treins” sounds a bit like “trains”).
Set above Bennigan’s, this large establishment looks rather dated in design terms: with its booth-style seating and potted plants, it resembles a converted coffee shop (and, indeed, advertises coffee as well as beer in neon ads on the windows.) Outside is a rather kitschy display that you don’t see in Korea as often as you once did: wax reproductions of the dishes. In the evenings, the live warbler on the piano and the piped music ― old belters like “Love Is Blue” ― reinforce the “way back when” ambience. I am astonished when I am told it opened in December 2003; looking at it, it could have been December 1983.
Menu also has a somewhat 1980s feel. “The Top Restaurant in Seoul,” it reads ― leading a chum to ask whether it gives directions there. Anyway, at lunch, there is spaghetti with meat sauce, ginseng chicken soup, bibimbap and pork cutlets, as well as a range of fried rice dishes. The more expensive dinner items include tenderloin, lobster, king prawn and seafood au gratin.
As it was lunch ― and as the more expensive selections (upwards of 30,000 won, or $26) looked pretty drab even in the waxwork representations out front ― we ordered the pork cutlet (7,000 won) and the iron plate seafood fried rice (16,000 won). The former is, as pork cutlets go, not bad. It is crisply coated, and is a generous portion, in a thick, dark gravy. It comes with a mound of rice and a pedestrian side salad. The fried rice is also a pretty substantial serving: it comes with slivers of dried seaweed on top, includes mussels, clams, and chopped peppers, onions and carrots ― but is greasy and overpriced. Spaghetti Bolognaise (15,000 won) is best left well alone: chewy cheese, mushy noodles, no meat and a tomato sauce that tasted more like tomato soup. Side dishes include kimchi (a bit on the sour side) and sliced mushrooms with sesame (not bad at all).
So what of the beer? We have the typical three: Dunkles, Weissbier and Pilsner (5,000 won for 500cc). The Pilsner we tried a little early so cannot honestly judge, but the Weissbier is pretty good: frothy, with a touch of ginger, and, like a Schniederweisse, a hint of bubble gum also. The Dunkles is the best I have tasted in Seoul: a rich, bready nose, a medium body and a good but not over-sweet caramel background. Given that these are resolutely German-style beers, it comes as a surprise to learn that the brewmaster is an Irishman: Matthew Callahan. Perhaps the fact that he has been on more than one assignment is the factor raising his beers above the average. However, even he admits that he has been told to tone down the hops in his pils, and wishes he could spread his wings and brew an Irish stout.
The serving lasses are pleasant enough, and though the place looks understaffed, there is an electronic button on every table if you wish to call for service.
Verdict: Uninspired decor, uninspiring food ― but pretty inspirational beer. And what could be more important this summer?
English menu: Available.
Telephone: (02) 313-7400.
Location: Seoul Station, 2d floor.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon