Delicious Italian gourmet in a vampire-free setting
In the Gwanghwamun area, you have the dependable “Wood and Brick,” a range of pricey eateries in the belly of the Seoul Finance Center, the wickedly expensive “L’ Abri” in Kyobo, and, I notice, a “Bennigans “ has just opened next to Cheonggye stream. But considering the amount of international business and diplomacy that takes place within a 10-minute walk of the intersection, that’s a pretty limited choice.
However, in a side street behind the Sejong Cultural Center is another option, and when one grasps the no-brainer concept behind it, one slaps oneself on the forehead and wails at its obvious appeal.
We are talking about “Mad for Garlic.” This four-restaurant chain bills itself as an “Italian Wine Bistro” and serves two things beloved by your average Kim: Italian food and garlic. Especially the latter. The place apparently goes through some 20 to 30 kilograms (44 to 66 pounds) of the stuff per day.
Set on the second floor of the Dongwon building, customers walk in past a large oval bar brimming with wine bottles - oddly, though, there is no bar seating - and a semi-open kitchen. The main dining area consists of booths. All fittings are of dark wood, while bulbs of garlic and upturned wine glasses dangle overhead. There is a narrow aisle to one side with window views, but it is otherwise very dim. Mind you, it is atmospheric, and with winter approaching, it can claim a certain coziness.
Menu offers about 40 dishes. We began with a Garlic Bread Tower (4,800 won). This is a largish loaf of very garlicky bread, but while good, one has to ask oneself why they’re spending their hard-earned cash on this. Most restaurants serve bread - including garlic bread - for free. Next up was Caesar Salad (11,800 won). This is a large bed of leaves, with large crispy croutons, a thick, piquant sauce and as much grated cheese as your heart could desire: definitely one of Seoul’s better Caesars. Crab and Lobster Pasta (14,000 won) is less successful. The pasta was overdone, the cream sauce nothing special and the lobster and crab meat clearly of the recently unfrozen variety.
Pizza Margherita (14,600 won) is a large, ultra-thin crust specimen. Nicely presented, it boasts a heavy application of tomato paste, and a few basil leaves (which frankly, do not add much), but the crust is nicely crisped.
I save the best for last - and this one is only for true garlic aficionados. The Mushroom Risotto (14,800 won) was a thick concoction of sticky rice, various kinds of mushrooms, and some spinach for variety. Delicious chunks of moist roast pork are placed on top of the rice, but it is the taste of the latter that will blow your trousers off. This is loaded with garlic as well as being immodestly sprinkled with (I think) chili powder and black pepper. A true in-your-face, on-your-breath classic. You have been warned.
With so many Seoul wine lists today being outrageous and cheerless, it is nice to see one that is cheap and cheerful. It offers around 40 wines, priced from 23,000 to 96,800 won ($21 to $94) and includes such celebrated high-school party chuggers as Germany’s Black Tower, but when one is usually being asked to pay 80,000 won or more for a pretentious New World chardonnay, this is refreshing.
It being lunch, we stuck to H2O. This is served iced in large plastic glasses with straws; these wouldn’t look out of place at McDonalds, but with wine glasses dangling overhead, it did clash with Mad for Garlic’s attempts at ambience creation. Serving staff was plentiful and reasonably on-the-ball.
The verdict: like every competing Western restaurant in the area, Mad for Garlic is overpriced, but the portions are generous, and if you like garlic - and you should - you will feel at home. It is especially recommended for a business lunch or a romantic dinner, with the proviso that you have some mouthwash handy for immediate post-dining application. Visiting Transylvanian Counts, for obvious reasons, are advised not to venture anywhere downwind of the place.
Mad For Garlic
English: Some spoken, some on the menu.
Tel: (02) 722-4580.
Web site: www.madforgarlic.com
Location: 2nd Floor, Dongwon Building in Gwanghwamun.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Dress code: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon