Dining like the RussiansSeoul is not known for its ethnic diversity. Chinatown was demolished in the process of the Seoul Plaza Hotel’s construction, and Itaewon, for all the foreigners thronging its streets, is little more than a expatriate melting pot, hardly different from corresponding districts in other Asian metropolises.
And yet, deep in the heart of darkest Dongdaemun, there is Russia Town.
This is not, admittedly, the kind of place where you can look around and imagine yourself in downtown St. Petersburg. It is a couple of nondescript side streets across from the stadium that became a magnet for the Central Asian and Eastern European bag traders of the 1990s. Here, you will see a lot of Cyrillic signboards and hear a lot of Russian being spoken by the globe-trotting, multi-ethnic offspring of the defunct Soviet empire: Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and others.
A culinary magnet drawing many of these persons to the district, be they migrant workers or diplomatic staff, is what has been recommended as the top restaurant in the area: Samarkand, named after the semi-legendary central Asian Silk Road pit stop and home of the great warrior Tamerlane.
The restaurant is set in a shabby back alley behind a couple of yeogwan catering to Eastern European and Central Asian clientele. An illustrated menu is helpfully posted outside; inside are nine tables, some faded tourist posters of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, and a TV playing Uzbek dance videos. Ambience doesn’t offer much to write about, but the polyglot clientele does; when we visited, it consisted of a couple of tough-looking Kazakhs, a Russian diplomat’s wife and her daughter and a lone Korean with a mouthful of gold teeth.
Who better to guide a hungry chap through the menu in question than Russian man-of-letters, alumni of Kim Il Sung University and all-round interesting fellow Dr. Andrei Lankov? What follows is a blow-by-blow critique by yours truly, interspersed with expert commentary by the good doctor.
The dishes on offer are largely Central Asian specialities, plus a couple of solid Ukrainian/Russian staples. (I should add that romanization is my own; the menu is in Cyrillic and Korean only). First come the side dishes: a standard tomato and cucumber salad, then shredded, pickled carrots. (Lankov: “The only place where Korean food has really internationalized is Russia: Korean food is as popular in Russia as Chinese food is in America. It is cheap and easily available, and is always sold by ethnic Koreans ― or at least Orientals. However, it has changed for the local audience, and would be unrecognizable to most Koreans. For example, Russians think this is kimchi!”)
The dish is, basically, carrots in a light vinegar with a touch of spice. It’s really rather pleasant ― and yes, the pickling and spicing does add a faint whisper of Korean flavor.
We begin the meal proper with samosas (1,500 won), which are about twice the size of their average Indian cousins. They are made of crisp pastry, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and filled with peppery, spiced mutton and onions. Good stuff, and very hearty. Next is a loaf of lepeshki (2,000 won), a heavy, doughy bread, which, Lankov and I agree, is far from special.
Then the classic: borsch (4,000 won), a large bowl of soup ― a main, not a starter ― loaded with white cabbage, carrots and braised beef, with sour cream poured in. (Lankov: “This is Central Asian, rather than Ukrainian style. It is a bit fatty, and short on the beetroot.”) Agreed.
The next dish is the standout: mandui (5,000 won), which are large dumplings (the root word is the same as for “mandu”). These are large, served in oil, topped with caramelized onions, drizzled in sour cream (Lankov: “Actually, more like buttermilk”) and sprinkled with diced spring onions. The meat is good, but it is the texture that is really first-class. (Lankov: “These originally came to Russia from China, via Central Asia.”)
The last dish is equally good: shaslik (1,500 won), the Muslim basic of skewered, grilled lamb. Excellent: The fat is nicely crisped, and the servings ― these are more like swords than skewers ― are sizeable.
And, of course, there is booze. We order a pichet of cheap, chilled vodka (Lankov: “They are surprised we are ordering such a small amount: normally, people order 10 times this!”) and a nicely decorated pot of strong black tea. I neglected to note the price, but both were reasonable. Lagers are also available. Service is from a couple of Uzbeks who speak no English, but are friendly and helpful.
Verdict: Exotic food ― and excellent value. How many places in Seoul can you say that about, comrade?
English: None spoken; menu in Korean and Russian.
Tel: (02) 2277-4261.
Subway: Dongdaemun Stadium, lines No. 2, 4 and 5, exit 12.
Hours: 9 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. (“They close once a month, but don’t set the day in advance,” says our expert.)
Parking: None available.
Credit cards: None accepted.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon