Food for the faithful in the dingiest of places
- But outside Petra, a restaurant perched on the crest of the hill at the entrance to Itaewon, overlooking Noksapyeong station and the Yongsan garrison, it hits me why I have never bothered before: This really is one shabby-looking neighborhood. Tawdry housing, garbage-strewn streets ― my trepidation increased when I saw that the restaurant had no ground floor entrance. You enter up a flight of concrete steps onto a porch that screams “converted house.” First impression: A stinker.
- Once inside the portals, though, that impression vanishes. What you are looking at is a spacious dining room, extravagantly carpeted ― this being a Muslim restaurant, there are even carpets nailed to the ceiling ― and flooded with natural light from the windows that offer excellent views of the base. Ornamentation takes the form of hookahs, brass kettles and paintings of Petra, Mecca and other locations of note in the Middle East.
The manager, a Palestinian-Australian named Yaser Ghanayem, greeted us as we entered with a huge grin and a booming laugh; we were great chums within minutes. (This has happened to me before: Why is it that Muslim restaurants always boast such excellent service?) The restaurant’s chief patrons, this splendid chap told me, are primarily English teachers, plus a solid sprinkling of diplomats.
The menu was varied, offering Middle Eastern staples such as hummus, kebab and various lamb dishes, plus a wide range of vegetarian selections. As I perused this interesting document, and noted, moreover, the almost shocking affordability of most of the offerings, I wondered if I had stumbled upon a hidden gem.
Not here. First up was hummus (ground chick peas: 5,000 won, about $5) and labanah (cream cheese: 5,000 won). The hummus was a creamy, rather nutty tasting variety ― not as garlicky as some I have had ― while the labanah (a new dish for me) was a cross between cream cheese and yogurt. Both spread well on the excellent pita bread.
The makdoos (5,000 won) is quite possibly the best value vegetarian dish I have ever got my laughing gear around in Korea. For the uninitiated, this is an eggplant stuffed with garlic, walnut, coriander and red chili. It is a superb blend of both tastes and textures, beautifully presented.
Sultan Lamb (12,000 won) was also superb: A stew of chunky lamb served in an earthenware pot with tomatoes, onion, coriander, chick peas and raisins. The lamb was superb, and the aromatic stew was its equal. If you love lamb (and if you don’t, what’s your problem?) you’ll be having culinary orgasms over this one.
I am all up for ordering a lamb kebab, but the wife gently suggests (translation: forcefully demands) a chicken kebab (12,000 won). This was a generous portion of clucker, beautifully seared from the chargrill, served on a bed of lettuce drizzled in olive oil. Contrary to our expectations, it was moist, not dry, and well marinated. Although Yaser assured us that Middle Eastern cuisine is not nearly as incendiary as Indo-Pakistani food (or relations), this dish was accompanied by a couple of scorching pickled green peppers. Delicious, but you have been warned.
Complaints? Just one. This being a halal establishment, there is nary a drop of booze to be had, but I’ll know better next time. Patrons can bring their own vino, Yaser told me, adding with a flourish that there is no “corkage” charge. This just kept getting better and better.
Anyway, on the visit we couldn’t forego a liquid refreshment, so we ordered an unsweetened yogurt drink (3,000 won) ― very tart, very good ― and a fresh orange juice (2,000 won). The aromatic rose tea we finished up with was also a surprise, but when it comes to digestifs, for aficionados, the hookahs beckon. “Smoke a shisha, not hashisha,” the menu recommended.
Verdict: Interesting menu and excellent dishes (every one a winner, baby), not to mention splendid hospitality. And given the excellent value, I am really quite excited and am contemplating my next visit. Two thumbs, very firmly up.
English Spoken: English menu
Tel.: (02) 790-4433
Hours: Tues-Sun: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mon: 5 p.m. -10 p.m.
Address: 552 Itaewon Dong, Yongsan Gu, Seoul.
Dress: Come as you are
by Andrew Salmon