A touch of fire in Buddha’s Belly

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A touch of fire in Buddha’s Belly

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Considering there is already an Indonesian and a Thai restaurant yards away, one has to ask: Is there room for yet another Southeast Asian restaurant in the ever-more cosmopolitan alley behind Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel?
The owners of the recently opened “Buddha’s Belly” seem to think so. “Buddha’s Belly,” you may be aware, first opened in a tiny hole-in-the-wall near Noksapyeong subway station, opposite the U.S. base. Word of mouth was that it was cheap, but unexciting, so I never bothered with it. However, the buzz surrounding its second location is far more positive. So, appetites in tow, there we were.
The restaurant is a second-floor walkup above the Pakistani “Usmania.” What we have is a low-lit ― dim spotlights above, candles flickering on the tables ― split-level, wooden-floored dining room. There is a bar with a standing cellar at one corner, and Thai decor on the walls.
Most striking, though, are the seats around the perimeter of the room: scarlet divans. One of the staff told us these were left over from the establishment that previously rented the premises, which makes one wonder what on earth it could have been ― a Roman-themed bordello, perhaps?
Overall, the ambience is not overly Southeast Asian ― there are no kick boxers or shemales hanging around, for example ― but it is groovy, arty and just slightly decadent, if you get my drift. Our dining companions were on their first date ― awww! ― it’s that kind of place, and from where I was sitting, things looked promising on the romantic front.
I am also told there is a DJ in da house every Thursday. Quite what business a DJ has in a restaurant without a dance floor, I have no idea ― but there you are.
The menu is a three pager, and we start things off with Chicken Satay (6,000 won or $6.30). The chicken was moist and lightly grilled, on sticks. The chili and peanut dip was a definite winner, avoiding the usual pitfalls of being overly sweet or spicy.
A Seafood Salad (12,000 won) was a colorful platter of mussels, squid, shrimp, onion, celery, tomatoes and cilantro. A light, refreshing dish, but not as spicy as advertised.
The Tom Yang with Chicken (14,000 won) was more exciting. Oily, but, again, light, subtly spiced and delicately flavored with lemon grass and lime, it featured a generous handful of button mushrooms as well as the bird.
The Green Curry with Beef (12,000 won) was a creamy affair, positively loaded with beef. It was subtle at first taste, but with a built-in piquancy from the lime leaf, and a bit of a kick in the aftertaste. Not something that will blowtorch the trousers off the backsides of spice fanatics, true, but in my book, this is an absolutely tremendous curry ― very highly recommended indeed.
An appropriate foil to the meat curry was a vegetable dish: Kale in Oyster Sauce (12,000 won). Kale is a far rarer beast than the more commonplace bok choi or spinach, but is as strong and as richly green as either. The oyster sauce (muscled up with a touch of garlic) was a delight, and the fresh crunchiness of the kale was highly refreshing. Another winner.
Finally, Beef Noodle Soup (12,000 won). This was a huge bowl, and, like the curry, generously crammed with beef. It was nicely presented, being sprinkled with (I think) mint, and the serving size was substantial enough to make it a meal in itself.
Buddha’s Tum offers a decent wine list, which ain’t always a feature of Thai tuck houses. We choose a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which has, in recent years, replaced the customary recommendation of a Gewurztraminer as the favored wine to accompany spicy Asian cuisines.
Our selection, a 2005 Marlborough (53,000 won) proved to be one absolute spunker of a vino. Well chilled, sharply fruity, tangily refreshing and offering the bouquet characteristic of all decent Sauvy Blancs ― cat’s pee ― I don’t remember when I last found a wine such an ideal match for food. Splendid.
The service was pleasant and personable ― though they brought all our dishes, appetizers and mains, at once, which put our table legs at risk.
Verdict: Offering much more subtly prepared Thai dishes than the sledgehammer flavors found elsewhere, Buddha’s Belly is recommended. In fact, I will go further. As I was leaving, I bumped into a thuggish acquaintance (an investment banker, needless to say) who not only blew my cover as a grub critic, but threatened me with dire bodily harm should I dare pen a negative word about the place. As a confirmed coward, let me say this may just be the best Thai restaurant in town at present.


Buddha’s Belly
English: spoken.
Tel.: (02) 796-9330
Hours: 11:30 a.m ― 10:30 p.m. (last orders). Bar open till late.
Location: In the alley behind the Hamilton Hotel.
Subway: Itaewon
Parking: Available
Dress code: Cool casual


by Andrew Salmon
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