Sumo cuisine holds the fat while it steals the limelight
When Korea’s first chanko restaurant, Waka, opened in southern Seoul last September, it was besieged by members of the Japanese community, who dashed to the 80-seat restaurant to suckle on the famous product of Tokyo’s sumo district: Ryogoku. But what Waka offers is more than food ― it’s spectacle, with a host of Korean stars (Bae Yong-jun and Go So-young, et. al.) serving entertainment to the hungry mass of Japanese reporters that showed up to cover the restaurant’s opening.
It may be odd for celebrities and reporters to cover a restaurant opening, but Seoul’s Waka is no ordinary chain. Owned by the former sumo champion Wakanohana III Masaru, it’s the first overseas branch for the Japanese chain.
Like its originator in Japan, the Seoul restaurant serves a combination of things old and new. Diners start out with modern dishes over sake or wine before receiving a bowl of traditional chanko. Except for a few recipes imported from Waka in Tokyo’s Ginza district, most of the newer recipes served in Seoul are the personal creation of the Korean chef Kim Jae-cheon, who traveled to Tokyo to prepare for Waka’s coming.
The chain’s trademark dish is its wasabi konbu toromaki (27,000 won, or $25, plus a 10-percent service charge). Served on a bed of ice and orchid leaves are four slabs of gorgeously marbled Japanese tuna belly topped with dainty slices of snow-white yamaimo (mountain potato), brown seaweed and a dot of green wasabi. This beautifully presented dish is a sheer delight, not only to taste but also to look at.
To try Waka’s a la carte menu, my tablemates and I chose a moderately priced white wine. Since Japanese sake in Korea is generally over-priced, a good choice was either Sauvignon Blanc, the 2003 Carmen Central Valley at 33,000 won or a Californian Chardonnay, the 1997 New Ridge at 30,000 won.
Mr. Kim’s creations are light and low-calorie. One of the best-sellers is six fried shrimp with sweet cream and mayonnaise (18,000 won). Over a crispy shrimp-flavored chip is a plump shrimp doused in creamy sauce, an expensive but great h’ors-d’oeurvre when paired with chilled wine.
After this is Mr. Kim’s idea of a “well-being” diet: Waka salad (14,000 won), a bowl of iceberg lettuce, slices of raw tuna and goat cheese in sesame-and-ginger dressing. It’s an unusual mix of raw fish, French cheese and Asian dressing, but somehow it works. Another beautiful dish is the avocado puree mixed with natto and yamaimo (15,000 won). It is, again, an unusual dollop of avocado, fermented mung beans and mountain potato placed on a sweet crepe, but everyone at the table ended up fighting for more.
Agedashi tofu, or fried tofu (14,000 won), topped with alfalfa sprouts, grilled eggplants and strips of green onion, is smeared with spicy miso paste, which was a great accent in both color and taste.
The chanko itself, available in three flavors (salt, miso and kimchi at 20,000 won per person) turned out to have small portions but was definitely filling after a round of appetizers. It’s a pot of assorted mushrooms, tofu, green onions and fish paste cooked in a broth made from chicken and pork. Unlike the Japanese version, the Seoul Waka soup has no grease or meat smell. Those who miss the taste of yuzukosho (spicy citron paste) can also spice up the soup Japanese-style.
Miso (soy bean paste) is thick and hearty with a winter flavor, and the shio nabe (salt flavor) is clean and tasty. The kimchi flavor, however, didn’t seem to have the real zing of the Korean spice.
At Waka, one doesn’t need a sumo wrestler’s appetite to finish what is a very large meal, with additional fresh ramen or zosui (rice porridge) cooked with the remaining broth. We delicate ladies were able to enjoy every course of a great treat, while bravely tossing aside our plans to go down a size for the new winter fashions. We even had the nerve to go for Waka sherbet (6,000 won) and complimentary frozen yogurt.
The only intelligent justification for our overeating at Waka was this: keeping food out of “Yonsama” Bae Yong-jun’s hands. Any Japanese women who would like to thank us can take us out to dinner.
English: On the menu, spoken
Tel: (02) 515-9633.
Location: Behind the M-net bldg. in Cheongdam-dong.
Hours: Noon-3 p.m., 6-10 p.m. daily
Dress code: Smart casual
by Ines Cho