Dream deli brings nightmare to an endI suppose you could call it “The Seoul expatriate nightmare” ― and it has visited me a lot over the years. In clammy darkness, I wake with a sudden start. At first, I can’t recall the dream, but I am sitting up, my hands stretched forward, reaching desperately for something.
Then a snippet returns to me: A huge deli counter floats in front of me, loaded with baskets of crusty breads, jars of pickles, slabs of cheeses, and shelves of glistening cold cuts. My hands shake and a line of drool dribbles from my lips. Then I’m fully awake. It was only a dream. Ah! Cruel fate!
Sadly in Seoul, delis are virtually unknown. Yes, the big hotels have deli counters, but the ruinous prices charged make them a nightmare in their own right. There are sandwich bars downtown but they lack the kind of creativity that a true deli master brings to the art of ad hoc sandwich and food preparation.
Things have changed. As of Sunday, I have been cured of this nightmare once and for all.
For that, we have to thank a former executive chef of the Hilton, Herr Christian Meilinger, Austrian sausage maestro and butcher par excellence. This large, cheerful chap opened a European-style deli last month in Itaewon ― and by crivens, it is a fine, fine place.
It is also a tiny place, set in the alleyway that runs parallel to the main drag and tucked behind Geckos Terrace. (With the Irish-themed Wolfhound pub also here, I wonder if this location will become the next Three Alleys) “Chef Meile” as he likes to be known, offers three tables, a couple of Sound of Muzak-style Austrian tourism posters on the wall, and the deli counter. This contains all the delights mentioned above, plus a whole lot more: saussies, spud salad, jars of herbs and tubes of mustards (though it is a bit weak on the cheese front). You can eat in-house: there is a one-page menu.
Brace yourselves, as I regale you with the banquet that followed.
We ― we are five ― wet our whistles with Austrian Veltins beer. Sad to say, this is not a particularly memorable serving of suds compared to the superb Viennese dark lagers; fortunately Chef Meili’s also offers the dependable Erdinger wheat beers. The bread basket is excellent: Fresh, crusty black and white breads, with unsalted butter.
We begin our feast proper with a platter of smoked fish (16,500 won, $17.65), which is, as far as I am aware, unique in Seoul. It features salmon, halibut, trout and mussels ― all smoked on the premises. It also comes with a sprinkling of fresh horseradish (I always have a little something special here, says Chefy, sounding rather like a Teutonic Santa Claus). The fish is in chunks, not slices, and offers a dry, salty smokiness in the flavor; the mussels are particularly superb.
Then it is Hungarian goulash (12,500 won.) This comes on a bed of spaetzle (a kind of German/Eastern European pasta), is rich, delicately spiced ― and how often does one find “delicately spiced” dishes on this peninsula? ― and heavy with braised beef. A fine dish for winter ― but don’t take my word for it. “This is the best goulash I have ever had in a foreign country,” said Andrea Toth, 28, a yoga instructor from Hungary.
Sandwiches were the Bosu (5,000 won) and Hot Pastrami (9,500). The bosu is apparently a Salzburg specialty of white sausage, curry and mustard, served in crusty bread. A touch dry, but a substantial and tasty sandwich. The hot pastrami, served on crisp, open rye bread, with melted gruyere and sprinkled herbs, is sensational.
We also try two mains. These are Veal with Potato Salad (26,500 won ― veal is a pricey meat here) and Veal Tenderloin with Cream of Mushroom Sauce on Spaetzle (26,500 won). Both were good, but we preferred the second: a thick chunk of veal, in breadcrumbs, coated in a thick creamy sauce.
To wash down the above, we sink a bottle of Gruner Veltiner 2005 (39,000 won: a special weekend price). A cheerful little Austrian glugger, it offers a flowery bouquet and an acidic, spritzy taste.
Chef, who teaches cuisine at Woosung University in Daegu during the week, is only here during the weekends, but is looking to train someone up to help out during the weekdays. (This suggests to me that if you want to be assured of quality, weekends are the best time to come for now.)
Verdict: Splendid. Mains and vinos are a bit steep, but everything else is both enjoyable and affordable. The opening of Chef Meili’s is in fact, a newsworthy event; if, when you read this, it is not on the front page, I respectfully suggest you email the editor and express your indignation.
Address: 128-15, 1st Floor, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Parking: None available
Hours: Seven days. Sun-Thurs: 11 a.m. -9 p.m., Fri - Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Dress: Come as you are
by Andrew Salmon