Order the makguksu; you can skip the restThe summer heat is relentless. The Seoul concrete is intolerable. The time has come to escape.
Well, you could drive due east of Seoul for a couple of hours to the small city of Chuncheon. Here, you could make your way around the shimmering lake at the edge of town, past the forested mountains with their shaded trails and hidden temples. After a refreshing hike, you would arrive at an area dotted with sources of cool, fresh water: this is Saem Bat, or the Field of Springs. The area is also dotted with small eateries specializing in simple, homemade, rural dishes. You could eat here to your heart’s content, and then, your stomach filled with wholesome food, could enjoy the scenery: the unaccustomed quiet of the countryside, the idyllic vistas, the scented breezes wafting down from the hillsides...
Or you could simply make your way to southern Seoul’s Saem Bat.
This branch of one of Chuncheon’s most popular rural-style restaurants opened in Seoul last year. There are no mountains in the background ― although it does stand in the shade of towering apartment blocks. It is a long, low, brick building, with large windows on both sides. A very minor effort has been made to impart a bit of rural ambience: stands of bamboo are planted around the parking lot out back. Inside is a single plain dining room, divided in half lengthways: one half is table seating, one half floor seating. It is nothing fancy, but it is bright, airy and spotlessly clean.
The menu is limited and offers simple, rural cuisine. We order bossam (steamed pork; 17,000 won, or $15), modumjeon (mixed vegetables and meat in egg batter; 17,000 won) and makguksu (cold buckwheat noodles; 5,500 won).
The bossam is slices of steamed pork belly eaten in envelopes of white cabbage. It is accompanied by a very rich, generously spiced kimchi of crunchy turnip and diced chestnut. The pork itself ― there are both lean and fatty slices ― is dipped into a salty shrimp paste for added flavor. A fair-sized serving, and no complaints, taste-wise, though it is nothing to really write home about.
The modumjeon includes zucchini, shrimp, cultivated pine mushrooms, squid and beef, all dipped in egg batter; for ease of consumption, some are run through with wooden skewers. Again, a pleasant dish, and fair value ― but nothing one would particularly want to travel for.
Fortunately, the makguksu is, alone, worth the price of entry. What we have here is a large bowl of cold buckwheat noodles, served with half a boiled egg and a piquant, but not overwhelming, chili sauce. The whole is sprinkled with sesame seeds and strips of dried seaweed laver. After mixing it all up, you can, if you wish, add mustard and vinegar to taste. The flavors gel nicely, but the selling point here is the noodles themselves: they are handmade, thin, very nicely textured, and you can actually taste the buckwheat. In short, this is a well-flavored, substantial but refreshing dish for the sweaty season.
To drink, there are the usual lagers, sojus, etc. Oddly enough, there is also a short wine list, offering Chilean varietals. The effects of the recent free trade agreement with the South American nation are popping up in unexpected places. I should add that the service here is well above average: The crew of youngish ajumma who run the place are cheerful, child-friendly and efficient.
Verdict: No remarkable ambience here, and of the three dishes we tried, I would say two were only slightly above average ― but one was a standout. This is not the place for a romantic dinner or a business power lunch, but if you are looking for a simple, rural repast in the heart of Seoul, this family-friendly restaurant could fit the bill.
English: None spoken; none on menu.
Tel: (02) 585-1702, ~1712.
Address: 1667-8 Seocho-dong, Seocho district.
Subway: Seoul National University of Education station, lines No. 2 and 3.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon