Asian melange makes Chai 797 worth the tripHere’s a new twist for Seoul’s dining scene, which currently overflows with Chinese and Thai restaurants: Take the all-time best-selling Asian dishes ― Pad Thai, dim sum, Sichuan noodle soup, et al ― and combine them on one menu. The result is the restaurant Chai 797.
Situated in the area known as Seoul’s “Little France,” a village-like part of Bangbae-dong where there are a number of restaurants serving French or Italian food, Chai 797 is a welcome addition to the scene. After all, what’s a village without a good Chinese restaurant? In fact, for most residents in the area a new Asian restaurant is the perfect addition to a place that’s saturated with European cuisines. So while I was battling across the city through horrible “Sunday traffic,” my dinner companion who lives nearby rejoiced at the chance of a truly relaxing Sunday evening, a la chinoiserie.
Chai 797 is a lovely spot on a street corner, decorated with heaps of fresh flowers in an entrance that is shared with a florist. The whimsical glass lanterns, the long banquette furnished with silk pillows, unusual “chopstick” chairs in the hall and hot jasmine tea served in a Korean ceramic pot suggest the potential for elegant or even romantic dining, but because of the bright lighting, the mood is more suitable for families and friends taking casual meals ― but don’t let the atmosphere fool you.
The best part of eating at Chai 797 is the dainty Chinese dumplings (1,500 won to 5,000 won, or about $1.25 to $4, each plus 10 percent VAT) made with fillings chosen by the diners from a range of options. They are freshly made on the spot at the “live dim sum bar.” It often takes time, but every action ― shaping, rolling, wrapping and steaming ― required to create these little treasures is visible from most tables. So it’s best to enjoy a drink first and let the experts get down to work. The wait is well worth it. Our green dumplings, with a filling of minced shrimp and leeks, were lightly pan-fried and served elegantly on a gilded compote dish. The dumpling was as soft as a dollop of cream, and it released steam perfumed with a fresh herbal and meaty aroma that delighted our senses.
Two mini bamboo baskets came out next with steaming bite-sized morsels inside, all ready to be devoured. These dim sum dishes were made with abalone and seafood and were so fragile that we wanted to pop them whole inside our mouths so they could dissolve over our taste buds. Compared with some of the best-known spots in the capital for Shanghai-style “soup dumpling” or xiao long bao, Chai 797’s soup dumpling was average. Yet, thanks to the quality of the dim sum treats and the chilly autumn night, a bottle of Tsingtao beer (6,000 won), went down as if it were a summer night in Hong Kong.
The restaurant offers a full page of prawn dishes served in various sauces, from garlic butter to soy sauce to red chili pepper. Here, all the a la carte dishes come in two sizes, half or full-size, with corresponding prices. A half-size order of wok-fried prawns, at 24,000 won, has just six of these curly, crispy crustaceans, served on a bed of fried onion strips ― delightfully light as a side dish.
The business of eating then got a bit more serious, as we found ourselves wiping the plate clean with a bowl of jasmine rice (2,000 won) that accompanied beef and asparagus stir-fried in black bean sauce. We liked this dish but at 30,000 won it would cost much less in countless other Asian restaurants around Seoul.
After some Chinese dishes, we wanted to go Thai. And what’s better than the refreshing flavor of lemongrass? Our choice was a plate of deep-fried chicken topped with crispy lemongrass slices, served on a bed of lettuce (20,000 won). The thigh piece was dark and chewy with a spark of ginger and the fresh, watery lettuce countered the oily feel of the meat.
Here, all diners should be warned about the “crispy” lemongrass. Thin slices of lemongrass fried to a stiff consistency become like dangerous needles that can get stuck in a diner’s oesophagus ― that is precisely what happened to my friend, who instantly turned red. We didn’t have to call 911, but the experience certainly scared us. But that didn’t make me avoid those fragrant slices because they worked so well; I simply chewed them carefully.
The restaurant offers assorted noodles dishes served in a size big enough for a single-course lunch. For those who prefer a mild taste they can choose seafood noodle soup (8,000 won), boiled with chunks of shrimp, baby octopus, mussels and clams. A bowl of spicy rice noodle soup with assorted seafood and vegetables (10,000 won) tasted like we were sailing across the Pacific ocean (plenty of seafood), between Thailand (flat rice noodles and bean sprouts) and Korea (fiercely spicy soup).
The combination did what any popular Asian noodle soup should do for a very hungry stomach ― provide wholesome, spicy and filling nutrition.
At the end of the meal, we were treated to a small bowl of persimmon puree with tapioca jelly. Nice’n sweet, thank you, but it was somehow not complicated enough. Having traveled gastronomically around Asia we left to discover what kind of multinational desserts the city of Seoul could offer.
by Ines Cho
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