At Hannam-dong eatery, dim at a reasonable sumThere is talk of transforming Korea into the Hong Kong of Northeast Asia ― a free-trade-focused hub serving the region. Big plans, but not enough action, informed voices say.
Meanwhile, if Korea is to achieve the even more distant goal of becoming a culinary hub, it had better import some Hong Kong culinary wizardry, say I. So imagine my delight when I came across a local restaurant serving that classic Hong Kong lunchtime specialty, dim sum.
But Hong Kong is also home to some very cavalier service. (The classic tale is of a fire breaking out in a Hong Kong basement restaurant ― but as terrified diners attempt to flee, management bolts the doors and insists everyone settle their bills first.) At the restaurant in question, I wondered ― fleetingly ― whether management had decided to reproduce Hong Kong service as well.
There I am with two pals, ensconced at the table, mouth open and poised to deliver our order. Our waitress is standing dutifully at the corner of the table when ― lo and behold! ― she turns her back and strolls off.
Consternation. What to do? Leap to one’s feet, snap one’s fingers and bawl “Manager?” Hurl one’s napkin to the deck and stamp out in a fit of dudgeon? Or (being English) sit meekly and wait, in the hope that she will return?
These options are running through my brain when ―hallo, what’s this? She is coming back. With a notepad in her hand. Ah. Crisis over, misunderstanding cleared up. The order is successfully delivered.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The location is Western China, a restaurant in the foreign ghetto of Hannam-dong. Once inside ― the exterior walls are helpfully emblazoned with color representations of the top dishes, which they claim will “Touch Your Heart” ― you are in a black, marble-floored dining room. To one side is the dim sum station, with a cheerful chef chopping ingredients, packing them into shells and dropping them into steamers or fryers.
The only decor of note is that classic photographic poster of 1930s-era construction workers sitting on a scaffold high above New York; on the wall opposite hangs a giant, highly polished stuffed turtle. (Soup?) The overall ambience is ― how can I put this? ― not particularly Chinese. In fact, if this place had not been open for four years, I would venture to guess that it was a recently converted bar. Or perhaps it is just a Western ambience the place is after: The manager explains that the brand should really be “Westernized Chinese” rather than “Western China,” as the idea is to reproduce Western-style Chinese cuisine.
The menu is extensive, carrying a range of Cantonese and Szechuan dishes. It also features three pages of dim sum. This being a rarity in Seoul ― and dim sum being rather more reasonably priced than the other selections ― we order a range of the latter, a la carte, although the dim sum lunch sets, at 15,000 won ($15) and 20,000 won, look good.
First to arrive are “crystal shrimp dumplings,” which come in glazed crystal wraps, with largish shrimps inside. The shrimp is obviously of the frozen variety, but overall, not bad. Next are “steamed spice rolls with shrimp and pork”; OK, but a bit rubbery in the texture department. “Little dragons” are steamed pork and veggie dumplings ―your basic Seoul High Street Chinese restaurant mandu (steamed dumplings), albeit with slightly more elaborate packaging.
“Beef shaomai with minced beef and dried orange peel” are grayish looking lumps, but once bitten into, are actually very good. The beef is indeed minced, and the orange peel adds an unusual and zesty flavor. “Beef curry and bamboo shoot spring roll” are deep-fried and to my palate, very good, with strong (but not spicy) curry flavors and crisp, but not greasy, skins. Finally, “lotus leaf chicken rice” is a mound of rice steamed (and served) in a large lotus leaf, with cubes of chicken embedded in its depths. The aroma of the leaf effectively permeates this dish, which is wet and enjoyable.
All are 4,000 won for three pieces, with the exception of the “crystal shrimp dumplings,” which are 5,000 won; the rice is also 5,000 won. All are served correctly in circular bamboo baskets. There is a good range of booze - including, even, a modest wine list - but given that it was a lunchtime outing, we stuck to tea.
The manager is a helpful fellow, and service is attentive ― tea cups are regularly refilled ― despite our little hiccup while ordering.
Verdict: I would not praise the dim sum here to the heavens, but it is certainly not bad, and you cannot argue with value: this is dim for a fair sum. If you are fed up with jajangmyeon houses, yet are unwilling to unload the ridiculous amounts of gelt required to feast at the five-star hotels’ Chinese restaurants, Western China is a decent halfway house.
English: Spoken, and on menu.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 10 p.m., seven days
Parking: Valet parking available
Location: 1st floor, 263-10 Hannam-dong, Yongsan district
Subway: None convenient
Dress: Nice casual
by Andrew Salmon