Korean country-style food while fresh ingredients lastProspective ― and famished ― diners’ disappointment at being turned away from a restaurant by apologetic waiters who say “Sorry, we’ve run out of today’s ingredient” makes a perfect nonpareil today. Such a rare event can only add to the joy of dining in Seoul, and led to the full discovery of Jangsarang, a small Korean restaurant in southern Seoul.
The restaurant, which opened in 2003, is still being discovered by newcomers, according to the owner, Hong Won-ja, mostly because of its discreet location. It is in the basement of a small building tucked behind one of the main streets connecting Apgujeong-dong and Sinsa-dong. Through word of mouth, Jangsarang has gradually accumulated a loyal clientele, from college students on a budget to gourmet housewives and art and entertainment industry professionals working nearby and seeking culinary refuge.
What they get is a range of simple, traditional Korean dishes, which taste authentic and delicious, at surprisingly affordable prices. A set dinner menu for four persons costs 15,000 won (or $13, plus 10 percent VAT) per person, and with most dishes less than 15,000 won, a dinner for two ample-portioned stomachs is under 40,000 won.
The interior is decorated with the framed patchwork and screens found in Korean traditional homes. The restaurant has two areas: an ondol room and a small hall area with tables, which can seat a total of 48 diners.
In short, Jangsarang, thank goodness, is precisely not the kind of modern restaurant found everywhere: with mass-produced and distributed ingredients that can cater to an unlimited number, they operate like giant factories that churn out colorful but tasteless meals, even when disguised under a homey feel. Jangsarang’s owner wanted to bring rare regional treats, which are prepared daily, to Seoul, while highlighting the real taste of Korean food based on two main sauces, doenjang (fermented soy bean paste) and gochujang (spicy red chili pepper paste).
Everyone who has heard of or been to Jangsarang starts with muksabal ― a large bowl of acorn jelly served in a cold broth. The dish is traditionally served with rice, as in the mukbap from Gangwon province that is the region’s summer specialty, but the owner here prepares the jelly alone with toppings, including gim (seaweed) and chopped kimchi, as a light starter.
Bassak bulgogi, grilled seasoned beef served on a hot plate, came in a small portion and wasn’t so impressive, compared with offerings in local meat restaurants known for their spectacular hanwoo.
Out of a few fish dishes, the waiter recommended nakji-bokkeum, or stir-fried octopus served with thin noodles, and gejang, a fresh crab lightly fermented in soy sauce. One small crab served in a pool of dark sauce and a slice of lemon and parsley had an unusual flavor, unlike any Korean dish. The combination of soy sauce, lemon and some strange spice made the dish not only non-Korean but also unappealing. As it turned out, the chef had added cinnamon, instead of ginger. A novel attempt but, Ms. Hong, it just doesn’t work.
The octopus dish was a decent, mildly spicy fare, with chunks of octopus, green onion, carrot and noodles nicely mixed together.
To match the vibrant Korean flavors, diners can opt for ordinary soju or beer, but do try the traditional grain liquor, or dongdongju (6,000 won), made from black beans. The creamy pale gray liquor, served in a large earthenware jar with a plastic gourd, tasted like sweet soy milk with mild grain alcohol to those who are used to stronger stuff, but it’s an agreeable, tasty beverage for most diners.
To properly appraise the restaurant that loves Korean sauces ― hence the restaurant’s name ― most customers order sotbap, or a pot of steamed rice. Because the rice is served with two types of fermented paste, doenjang-jjigae and cheonggukjang-jjigae, along with several side dishes, diners often order just this for lunch. Seasonal side dishes, including radish kimchi and sauteed green peppers, were far superior to those served in many Korean restaurants.
The hot rice, steamed with colorful chunks of orange pumpkin, beige sweet potato, red dates and green pumpkin seeds, looked and tasted wholesome. The waiters are usually too busy to tell diners to scrape the rice out of the stone pot and pour water to make nureunbap, or scorched rice, while the pot is scorching hot, but be sure to do so.
Tasting two different types of earthy stews, featuring creamy tofu and colorful greens, zucchini and green onion, was like revisiting a Korean country home, as the stronger doengjang yielded a piquant kick from the mature soybean paste, while the milder cheonggukjang offered a distinctively pungent aroma from fast-fermented soybeans. Finishing off the stew with the toasty blandness of the scorched rice, the meal was a feast made in a Korean country home.
After three visits there, though, I have yet to try the restaurant’s many other specialties, such as gondre-namul sotbap (steamed rice topped with wild plants grown in Jeongseon, Gangwon province) and Jangsarang’s own deulkkae sujebi (flour dumplings made with perilla seed and vegetable extract).
Each and every time, I just have to be at the restaurant early enough.
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (02) 546-9994
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily
Location: Behind Samwon Garden, south of the Seongsu Bridge in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul.
Dress code: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho