Meat, spuds n’ suds provide an ambience with eleganceIn a city where foodies reserve their superlatives for delicate portions of organic vegetables, complex sauces, artistic presentation and encyclopedic wine lists, the chances of your average food critic going into gushing rapture at the sight of a platter piled high with meat ‘n spuds are slim, especially when the meat ‘n spuds is washed down with a flagon of suds, rather than a bottle of something presumptuous from the chateau of the moment.
But this is not your average food review, and “Barlin” is not your average Seoul foreign restaurant. Set in the courtyard of the Somerset Serviced Apartments, this German establishment may be a stylish looking place, but it’s one that eschews the trendy for the tasty, the frivolous for the flavorsome.
Barlin, a “Deutsches Wirsthaus” (German inn) looks nothing like your average Korean “hof.” There are floor-to-ceiling glass windows, dark wood floors, a mirrored bar and a giant mural of the Brandenburg Gate over the kitchen serving hatch. It is airy and modern looking, with a hint of cool ― there is even outside patio seating.
But when it comes to the menu, don’t expect nouvelle cuisine: this is serious Teutonic tuck, with key strengths in meats, sausages and stews. There are weekly specials for 15,000 to 19,000 won ($14.40 to $18.25), but we open the attack on the a la carte with a couple of Eastern European classics: Goulash (7,800 won) and Beef Tartare (17,500 won).
The soup is a thick and red, loaded with ingredients offering a rich depth of flavor ― easily the finest goulash I have dipped spoon into in Seoul. The beef tartar is another model: a chunk of glistening pink raw beef, sealed with an egg yolk. Around the platter are piles of sliced onion, paprika and green peppercorns. Mix to taste, spread on the excellent black bread and ― voila! ― a carnivore’s dream appetizer.
For mains it is kassler (smoked pork loin) with mashed potato and sauerkraut (18,500 won). There are three generous chunks of pork, “German kimchi” which is also very good (mild, but picked up with a touch of black peppercorn), and a dish of mash which is as good as might be expected. My pal ordered the beef tenderloin with cream mushroom sauce, deep fried potatoes and salad. The steak itself is a considerable chunk and has a decent sauce, but at this price, doesn’t compare with the kassler for value. One rarity: the otherwise pedestrian side-salad contains beet, a first for me in Seoul.
Drinks? Of course. “This is not really a restaurant ― if someone comes just for a beer, he will be welcomed,” said the manager, native Teuton Christoph Bongard. Glad to hear it, as on draft are a pilsner and an alt from Germany’s most popular brewery, Krombacher. Bottled Erdinger wheat beers are also on sale.
The spritzy pils is strong on the hops, offering an excellent bitter sharpness, which explains why the much blander OB Lager is also served: European beer is too strong for most Koreans’ tastes. The alt (“old”-style beer, similar to an English ale) is a dark reddy-brown, light in the body but strong in the mouth, with a deep raspy, gingery flavor. Be warned: to make a decent head, the alt takes a while to pour. Both are 7,900 won for 400 milliliters (1.6 cups). There is also a wine list.
As for service, on our visit, some tables were clearly more favored by the management than others, and the wait staff is going through growing pains: our menus mysteriously vanished, and our beer order was confused with another table’s. With time, hopefully, these tendencies will come under control, and the giant barman/cashier was a decent fellow.
My main fear with a place like this is that the European management and chefs will disappear and the place will, in six months, transform itself into simply an exotic-looking Korean restaurant; this is the fate which befell a certain Irish pub in downtown Seoul just after the World Cup. No fear of that, says Bongard: he has Korean family and so is here for the long haul. His chefs have two-year contracts.
Verdict: No complaints about quality or quantity of food or drink, but we were a bit staggered when we paid: three beers a head added a substantial hit to the bill. So you, sober-minded reader, have been warned.
Hours: 11:30-11:30. Closed Sundays
Address: In Somerset Serviced Apts, behind the Japanese Embassy
Subway: Gwanghwamun (exit 2) or Anguk (exit 6)
Parking available (1000 won)
Dress: Smart casual
by Andrew Salmon