Small restaurant, growing reputationPop quiz: Think of a Japanese tree, and what springs to mind? A bonsai. A Japanese electronic product? A Walkman. A Japanese car? A hatchback.
Admittedly, sumo wrestlers are colossal chaps, but they are the exception to the rule. For the inhabitants of our island neighbor, the dominant aesthetic seems to be “small ― but perfectly formed.” And so it is with Japanese cuisine: small portions, delicately flavored and exquisitely presented.
There is at least one Japanese restaurant in Seoul that takes this miniaturization paradigm to its logical extreme: the physical establishment itself is tiny. Seongbuk-dong’s Kuboda Sushi has just four tables. Seating is on tatami mats, and behind a little bar at the back, Chef Park Jae-ho does his thing.
While the interior design is nothing to shout about, what are interesting are the testimonials pasted up on the inside of the windows: In French, English, Japanese and German, a number of very high-level individuals from the fields of business and diplomacy have gone on the record to praise this restaurant. It may only have been in business for about a year, but this wee establishment has won a sizeable reputation.
Menu is appropriately minimalist. There are some topped rice dishes, then five sets: 10,20,30,40 and 50,000 won. We decide on the 20,000 won ($17) set. This is personally served by the convivial chef. (The fact that he is wont to toss back a tumbler or two of sake with his guests may well account for his hearty good cheer.)
First past the post is a four-compartment set of cold beef in soy sauce, mussels, egg roll and fish cake, accompanied by colorful pickles. Then things really get going. A platter of three kinds of sashimi arrives; one is sole, one cuttlefish, the other, alas, I don’t recall. But all are exquisitely, delicately sliced ― almost like slivers of coconut flesh ― and as fresh and tender as any I have eaten in Seoul. Then comes a large tomato, shaped, by the knife, into the likeness of a rose (conundrum: Do you eat it, or do you admire it?), dressed in oil and vinegar, and surrounded by scallop. Again, a light, delicate dish.
Things get more substantial ― slightly ― with the tempura. The version here is deep-fried leeks, and, I have to say, is the tastiest tempura I have yet sampled; despite its lightness, it is full-flavored, with (I think) a hint of onion in there too. Then arrive cubes of tofu, lightly fried on a big-bellied burner at the table.
The succeeding course is outstanding: cold shabu shabu, or shavings of beef, served in a creamy sesame sauce. And what Japanese meal would be complete without a serving of sushi? This includes abalone (in a huge shell) wrapped around a morsel of rice, and is followed by a sushi selection, including an excellent minced crab sushi. Finally, cold soba noodles, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with a dipping cup of soy, to which one adds wasabi, grated onion and spring onions to taste.
I should stress the excellence of presentation. The brown noodles come on a brown eathernware platter, topped with melting ice, and set off with bright yellow pickled radish for color. The accompaniments to the soba sauce have a purple orchid to add a dash of brightness to the compartments. The sake (courtesy of the chef, in our case) comes in an earthenware jug, inside a sweating brown vessel filled with iced water, and set in a wicker basket.
Chef/owner Park Jae-ho spent five years in Japan learning his trade ― “Kuboda,” in case you were wondering, was the name of his cooking master in Tokyo ― as well as stints at some of Seoul’s top hotels.
Verdict: Very, very good; one could easily pay twice the price and still consider this fair value. (I repeat: We shelled out a mere 20,000 won per person for the above.) But don’t take my word for it; my dining companion, a former Japan correspondent, called this one of only a handful of restaurants he would recommend in Seoul.
There’s more: The chef’s wife is a former patron. Apparently, she loved the food so much, she tied the knot. Compared to this endorsement, even testimonials from ambassadors and captains of industry ― not to mention humble food critics ― pale by comparison.
English: None spoken, or on menu.
Tel: (02) 744-2701 (reservations recommended).
Address: 100-1, Seongbuk 2-dong, Seongbuk district.
Subway: None convenient.
Hours: Noon-2 p.m., 6-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Dress: Formal or smart casual.
by Andrew Salmon