Satisfying dishes made from a hearty grain

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Satisfying dishes made from a hearty grain

For hundreds of years, buckwheat, or memil, was enjoyed in Korea for its distinctive yet familiar bland taste and texture, as well as its versatility, and now health-conscious diners are rediscovering the benefits of dishes made from the grain, rather than white rice or flour. Seongbukdong Memil Sujebi, a new Korean restaurant in northern Seoul, appears to have come on the scene just in time.
Located at the foot of Mt. Bukhan in Seongbuk-dong, this loft-style restaurant can accommodate up to 100 diners. It offers seating both at regular tables and on the floor at low tables, and has an outdoor terrace where diners can have complimentary coffee after meals.
The spacious building now overlooks a construction site, but I was told that soon the area will be turned into a park and a luxury residential complex. The space was purchased years ago by the family that used to run Dam Dam, a modest Korean restaurant in Samcheong-dong behind the Blue House, specializing in inexpensive but delicious meals.
When the owner, Yoo In-soon, had to move out of the Dam Dam space and decided to set up her business in the current location, she not only kept her recipes for earthy kimchi but also retained her best-selling dishes, like memil bibimbap and noodles. At Seongbukdong, former Dam Dam fans can have the same memil dishes, but at slightly higher prices.
Ms. Yoo’s memil bibimbap (6,000 won, or $6) is a vegetarian meal with rural origins. It’s a bowl of buckwheat grain mixed with fresh bean sprouts, shredded lettuce and spicy chili sauce. The memil noodle dish (5,500 won) is equally refreshing, spicy and tasty, containing cold buckwheat noodles mixed with young bean sprouts, cucumber and carrot strips, and lettuce leaves. The actual flavor of buckwheat is hard to detect because of the vegetables and spice, but brown rice and noodles are a bit sweeter and not as bland as white noodles or rice.
Also recommended by Ms. Yoo are nurungji baeksuk, or ginseng chicken served with scorched rice, and memil sujebi, buckwheat dumplings in hot soup.
The chicken dish is only sold as part of a set (35,000 won), which includes large memil jeon or buckwheat patties, and other side dishes. My tablemate and I wanted to try the familiar home-style cold noodles plus the set.
The memil patty came first, and it was large enough to be shared by three people as an appetizer. The bland and soft brown patty, the fresh and crunchy vegetables and a dollop of spicy red sauce made a very nice contrast in color, texture and taste.
There was so much food on the table that we could only pick at the iceberg lettuce with thousand island dressing, strips of cucumber and green pepper, three kinds of kimchi, and radish leaves sauteed in bean paste. Nothing fancy, but everything was simple and fresh.
The chicken arrived steaming hot, but unlike most conventional ginseng chicken, the meat was served separately on a plate, atop a large bowl of porridge.
Traditional ginseng chicken sold in Seoul costs an average of 10,000 won per serving, and the meat often tastes like cardboard, while the soup is suspiciously starchy, with too much garlic.
The Seongbukdong version is worth the money, however, as the chicken is meatier, with plump and moist flesh. Each morsel has the taste of real chicken, and delivers not a strong garlicky taste but rather an aromatic ginseng flavor. Very nice.
After we finished consuming the chicken, we tried the porridge part. It included soft clumps of brown, scorched rice, scraped from the bottom of an enormous vat used to cook the chicken dish. There was a deep, smoky flavor so unusual in ginseng chicken dishes.
This large meal left us absolutely no room for sujebi, the Korean-style dumpling dish. But, we couldn’t resist studying the menu, thinking about our next trip here. I know that, like many of the dishes we had on this visit, the sujebi will be bland, but deliciously so.

Seongbukdong Memil Sujebi
English: Not spoken, nor on the menu, but the picture menu helps.
Tel.: (02) 764-0707
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Location: Next to the bus (No. 1111 or 2112) terminal, or 5-minute cab or bus ride from Hansung Univ. station.
Parking: A few spots available for free.
Dress: Come as you are.
Second opinion: “The food is bland ― simple and light, posing no burden to the stomach.” Jung Soon-mo, housewife

by Ines Cho
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