The era of the galbi ‘super-restaurant’Kim Gae-cheon knows a bit about galbi, Korea’s famed barbecued short ribs. A former Blue House chef under Park Chung Hee, this son of Jeolla has also served former presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.
Having been in the business since the 1970s, he has some interesting theories. One is that marinades should be separated into two stages: soy and sugar first, then fruit and other ingredients in stage two. Others ― more controversial ― are that U.S. beef is more suited to grilling than Korean beef, and wine is a more appropriate accompaniment than soju. These theories we test anon.
But first, let us mince into his northeastern Seoul restaurant “Ganggang Sullai” (named after a group folk dance that takes place under the full moon). This fortress of an establishment, public relations representative Klaire Kim insists, is “the biggest galbi restaurant in Seoul!” It serves 400 tons of slaughtered cattle annually and seats 750 diners.
It is set over four floors and staffed by 160 employees ― all dressed like flight attendants. “This is not just a restaurant, it’s a corporation!” says Ms. Kim. Indeed. There is a banquet room for 200 ― complete with pulpit/lectern ― which is also used for local community activities. The “Sky Garden” is a glass-enclosed atrium in the center of the restaurant that is open to the heavens, featuring a bamboo grove and a shallow pond. There is also a playground and special seating area for children.
Now: the menu. First off, Fresh Rib (27,000 won, or $27, for 300 grams) and Marinated Rib (24,000 won for 300 grams). The former looks pink and juicy enough, and sizzles appropriately on the griddle, but proves, while tender, watery and tasteless. The reason? This is U.S. beef, which has not been allowed to be imported since December 2003 due to mad cow scares, making it possibly the oldest meat I have ever consumed (it had been previously frozen).
Culinary historians are divided over the use of sauces and marinades, but the conventional theory is that they were used to disguise the taste of ingredients past their primes. And so it proves: the marinated rib is far better. Although it is also U.S. beef, the sweet, fruity marinade contrasts nicely with the salty doenjang (fermented bean paste) dip.
Next is Korean Rib Roll (25,000 won for 160 grams). This chunk of Korean cow is cooked on a stone grill with mushrooms and onion, and proves excellent: No need for any sauces, just a touch of salt.
So, which is better grilled? Well?it would only be a fair comparison if the U.S. beef were fresher, so I will not be drawn, but in value terms, the local stuff is riskier to one’s wallet.
So far, the feast has been entirely carnivorous, but veggies are also catered to. A Stone Pot Mixed Rice (6,500 won) offers daechu, ginkos, sliced chestnut, peas, millet and rice. This colorful combination has a good variety of flavors and an excellent, grainy range of textures. A full complement of side dishes is presented: crisp, fresh cabbage kimchi, mashed pumpkin, spinach in sesame oil and ― Aha! An Achilles heel! ― iceberg lettuce salad with a cherry on top.
There is the usual range of Korean beverages, plus a limited wine list offering Majuang’s finest. The house red, a 2001 Mosel ― made in France, bottled here ― has a fruity bouquet but a dark, velvety taste. Better than soju with meats? Absolutely.
The experience does not end at the table. As you exit, there is an amazing “anti-galbi machine.” This high-powered air conditioner blasts a fragrant breeze over you, driving those smoky, meaty whiffs from your threads.
Service is on the ball, although the place gets crowded with hikers from nearby Mount Surak on the weekends.
Verdict: If size is everything, this place has it down: An impressive operation all round. My only complaint is that tasteless old American beef, but that is an issue for diplomats, rather than restaurateurs, to deal with. But if galbi prices are to come down, I suggest the time has come to lift this ban ― mad cows be damned.
English: On menu
Web site: www.sullai.com
Subway: Suraksan station, line No. 7
Hours: 11:30 a.m. - midnight daily
Dress: Come as you are
by Andrew Salmon