Change in plans provides unexpectedly rich delightA narrow two-lane driveway leading to Samcheong Park behind the Blue House teems with new restaurants, bars and boutiques with an artsy feel. This is thanks mainly to building restrictions in the area that ensure its decades-old houses retain their basic forms. My colleague and I had been planning to dine at a new Korean restaurant specializing in organic namul dishes, but found it did not open until sunset.
Instead we came across a small Japanese restaurant at the foot of the hill. I knew the restaurant Ilolee had been there for some time but had never got to try it, so we decided to check it out.
At first glance, the restaurant reminded me of its namesake, a square-shaped traditional Japanese hearth, or “irori,” where a pot of brown tea or rice balls are cooked over a wood fire. This Ilolee [spelled this way] is a small slate-colored square block, which looks architecturally designed to best use its tiny space. The linoleum-floored restaurant, where diners remove their shoes, has only five four-person tables, three of which have a gas stove in the center and a recess under the table for feet.
The restaurant’s extensive menu reads like that of a large chain restaurant, featuring dishes from grilled fish to udon to pork cutlet, but sukiyaki is what it does best and is known for, according to the owner, a middle-aged Korean woman.
“We get celebrities and ministers from the Blue House who regularly visit us,” she said. “For a sukiyaki dinner, you must make a reservation, because we only have three sukiyaki tables.”
So instead of our planned lean meal of rice and vegetables, we enjoyed a surprisingly festive and sizzling pot of sirloin, Chinese cabbage, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, onion, wild chrysanthemum leaves, burdock roots, harusame noodles and more, piled up on two large plates. At 50,000 won ($50) per pair, I thought the price was reasonable. As a quick appetizer, we ordered agedashi-dofu, or deep-fried tofu, which turned out to be decent Japanese fare. The owner said her husband had learned his trade in Japan and opened Ilolee in 2002.
To stir-fry the sukiyaki ingredients, she poured warishita broth and mirim (sweet rice wine) from two ceramic bottles to the pan, just as it started to give off white smoke.
There was trendy Japanese shochu, but, at 35,000 won, it was too expensive so instead we ordered a small bottle of chilled Geikkekan namachozo, a subtly spicy sake that goes well with sweet meat dishes. It is a supermarket variety in Japan but costs a whopping 25,000 won in Korea.
The most important ingredient of all in the authentic Japanese tradition of sukiyaki ― a sumptuous, pricey feast for a special occasion ―is the meat. In fact, the elaborate arrangement of the broth, wine and other ingredients was initially created to enhance enjoyment of the thinly sliced, gorgeously marbled sirloin.
In Japan, the elegant art of sukiyaki is almost religiously artistic, with an extremely courteous hostess in exquisite kimono expertly whisking a piece of pink meat in a black pot. This is followed by another whisk in golden egg-yolk sauce by immaculately dressed, grateful diners.
Accustomed to the manner of elegant Japanese dining, I was at first disappointed with how the Korean matron, wearing a plain black T shirt, casually laid down plates, as Korean aunts do for their relatives.
The meat was primarily red meat, with a few white veins of marbling. The woman began to cook the ingredients not individually, but several at once, allowing them to be overcooked. Thus, the Korean meat was a little tough.
This is understandable in Korea, whose dining tradition, regardless of a dishes’ origin and history, is carried out with nonchalant casualness. I asked if there were more staff to cook when there are more guests in the restaurant, and she said she gets helpers at busy hours.
Still, I was glad we were dining early as customers pack Ilolee to feast on sukiyaki.
In short, the sukiyaki at Ilolee is decent for Korea and served with Korean casualness. This sukiyaki is a home-cooked version. The broth isn’t very sweet, as most traditional Japanese restaurants serve, and the vegetables were hard to fault, as they were very clean and fresh.
Watching the red moist meat browning and fresh leaves being doused in the broth, while inhaling the mouth-watering smoke that surrounded us, my tablemate and I giggled in joy and wished the cooking, eating and drinking could last forever.
The rich, mouth-smacking essence left behind after cooking the meat and vegetables wasn’t wasted, as fresh udon noodles were added at the very end. By that time, I was full and giddy from enjoying a hearty meal, completely unexpected, having of course long ago forgiven the Korean casualness.
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Hours: Noon-10 p.m. daily, except closed on the first and third Sundays.
Location: Next to Yongsusan restaurant on Samcheong-dong road
Dress code: Smart casual or business.
by Ines Cho
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