The true taste of Japan, tender and full of flavor
For years, except for sashimi served with assorted Korean side dishes, Japanese food didn’t work in Korea as Koreans found it too sweet, too salty and too small in portion. Due largely to the recent “well-being” trend in Korean society, however, health-conscious and well-traveled Koreans have lately begun seeking Japanese cuisine. Yet, there is still a problem. There may be Japanese restaurants on every block in Seoul, but many offer dishes created by Korean chefs, only to disappoint serious Japanese food lovers. Even Dongbu Ichon-dong, known as Korea’s Little Tokyo, is catered to by Korean chefs.
Then why can’t Japanese chefs come to Korea, visa-free, and cook the real stuff to make everyone happy?
“The only way a Japanese chef can cook in Korea is to be employed by a foreign investment company or a joint venture with a Japanese company,” said An Mi-sook, the owner of Pungwol, or Fuugetsu, a Japanese dining bar located near Hongik University, in northwest Seoul.
As aficionados of Japanese cuisine in Seoul might be aware, the name Pungwol comes from a tiny Japanese restaurant in Itaewon. The former owner sold the name to Ms. An, who has turned Pungwol into a new franchise. Since its opening one-and-a-half years ago, the new Pungwol has made Japanese cuisine as close as possible to authentic in Seoul.
The sleek interior space, styled after the trendy izakaya (dining bar) n Shibuya, was designed by Nissyo Interlife, a reputable restaurant design and franchise business based in Tokyo. The restaurant, which can accommodate 58 diners, has two types of seating, Western-style tables and horikotatsu, or Japanese tables, with a sunken space for feet.
To make the food as genuine as possible, the Pungwol owner hired two Japanese chefs under a co-production company with Japan’s Nissyo Interlife, and banned Koreans from working in the kitchen.
Pungwol boasts an extensive menu of about 80 kinds of typical izakaya dishes ― from classic toriyaki (grilled chicken) through udon (noodles) and sashimi to chanko-nabe (hot pot). The drink menu lists popular Japanese items, from Asahi beer (8,000 won/$8) and Iichiko shochu (60,000 won) to 1.8 liter Oni Koroshi sake (60,000 won). We went for a small bottle of cold Gekkeikan sake (10,000 won).
Above all, the impressively real Japanese touch of Pungwol was the buri kabuto yaki (grilled jewfish head, 15,000 won), which took 20 minutes or more to cook. Upon its belated arrival, multiple pairs of chopsticks wasted no time in dancing above the hot head. The most delicious morsels, topped with grated radish and wasabi, were well hidden. Under the jaw hid the juiciest flesh dripping in transparent fish oil; behind the fin were tucked strips of pure delight. Such a treat is often reserved for the special clientele of exclusive sushi bars in Tokyo and New York.
When Pungwol’s specialties, hiyashi shabu (10,000 won) and tofu steak (8,000 won), arrived, my Japanese tablemates’ eyes widened, for they had never heard nor tasted such dishes back home. Both dishes are Pungwol’s former owner’s inventions and they have been enormously popular, the owner noted.
Hiyashi shabu is a small mountain of paper-thin beef, cooked “shabu-shabu” (“swish-swish” in hot broth), chilled and generously dressed in peanut dressing atop a bed of iceberg lettuce. “Oishii!” (Delicious!) ― cried my Japanese friends after their first bite. The tofu steak was also an unusual cross between fried tofu and egg omelette, topped with katsuo-bushi (dried bonito flakes). One tablemate who’s on a diet loved the simple taste and the low calories of the dish. “We’ve never had this before in Japan, but it’s good!” commented the Japanese diners.
Can Pungwol score highly in some of the trickiest categories in Japanese cuisine? The most basic Japanese udon, kitsune udon (6,000 won), was average, I’d say ― that is, if I were in Japan. Koreans who had never tasted authentic Japanese udon told me it was much tastier than other udons sold in Seoul. A large bowl of miso (soy bean paste) ramen (8,000 won) was a typical noodle dish I would come across near train stations around Japan. To my surprise, the owner admitted the ramen had been Koreanized, thus spicier than the original recipe, and the udon was only “so-so.”
That modest honesty makes Pungwol most Japanese of all.
English: Not on the menu, not spoken; Korean and Japanese spoken, on the menu.
Hours: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily
Location: 2nd fl. K Building Seogyo-dong; nearest subway station is Sangsu, line no. 6, exit 1
Dress code: Come as you are
by Ines Cho