Wagyu and Le Cordon Bleu, enjoy the finer things without breaking the bank
New forms of omakase are tugging on the curiosity of the growing epicurean population in Seoul.
Literally meaning “I’ll leave it up to you” in Japanese, omakase is a tasting menu comprised of the chef’s choices of the day at sushi restaurants. But in Korea, the term has been extended to also apply to other types of restaurants and even cafes.
Such omakase in Korea tend to be priced on the higher side, going well over 80,000 won ($63) per person, and fully booked for months.
To counter this expensive trend, a much cheaper version of omakase called imokase is seeing popularity, especially among young people in their 20s.
Imokase is a portmanteau of the words omakase and imo, meaning aunt in Korean. Locals also use imo to refer to servers at eateries serving Korean food.
Imokase prices range from 20,000 won to 60,000 won and serve multiple plates of anju (food eaten as a side of drinks) of imo’s choice such as jeon (Korean fried pancakes) and fried fish.
In a bid to find the middle ground between expensive and inaccessible omakase and bargain Imokase, the Korea JoongAng Daily visited three omakase restaurants — pasta, beef and coffee — that offer the gourmet experience at accessible price points.
Pasta omakase at Étuvée Seoul
Tucked in a narrow alleyway in Yongsan District, central Seoul, Étuvée Seoul is a cozy restaurant with just four tables and a classy interior.
The dinner omakase, which is all the restaurant offers, is comprised of three kinds of pasta, two antipasti and a dessert.
The current dishes are Cold Pasta with Tomato Gazpacho Sauce; Bottarga (cured fish roe) Pasta with sauce made with Isigny Butter, White Wine and Shellfish Broth; and Traditional Carbonara pasta. The menu changes every month or so.
The Capellini pasta, which is used for all three dishes, is freshly rolled and pulled out from the pasta machine as soon as customers are seated.
“We had ideas for sauces and also wanted to use fresh pasta, which is why we changed our menu to pasta omakase after a few months,” said one of Étuvée’s owner-chefs Im Seok-hwan. He runs the venue with his partner Kang Jae-kyun. The two met at Le Cordon Bleu’s Seoul campus.
Because the restaurant didn’t start out as an omakase venue, there is no bar, which is usually the standard style at omakase eateries. But the two chefs shuffle in and out of the kitchen to explain each dish throughout the meal.
The course kicks off with bread and Lorenzo olive oil mixed with Grana Padano shavings. There is also a palate cleanser of Basil Sherbet after two pasta plates then dessert which was Barley Grass Gelato made in-house.
Étuvée offers this tasting menu for 38,000 won per person, with no obligation to order any drinks. In comparison, many pasta omakase restaurants in Seoul charge around 90,000 won per person for dinner and require customers to order at least one bottle of wine.
“We wanted to make the experience of pasta omakase more accessible to people,” said Im.
While maintaining high standards for fresh ingredients and the flavor of the dishes, Im said that the pair cut down on labor costs and operate the restaurant on a reservation-only basis. It also serves Beef Carpaccio (29,000 won) a la carte, separate from the omakase.
Beef omakase at Uzik Robatayaki
The beef omakase at Uzik Robatayaki in Mapo District, western Seoul, has combined large portions, quality meat and a reasonable price.
“When I eat omakase at other restaurants, I am always hungry afterward, even though it was an expensive meal,” said manager Woo Seong-min. “So when I and three other owner-chefs of Uzik decided to open a beef omakase restaurant, we focused on making an omakase menu that could provide more satisfaction to customers.”
Customers are seated in a bar-style dining room that centers around an open grill and before the meal begins, are presented with a display box of all the ingredients they will be enjoying.
The dinner course begins with otoshi, or an appetizer of mashed tofu and romaine lettuce drenched in sesame sauce along with a side dish of Chinese lettuce marinated in yuzu.
The first course is Beef Tartare, followed by Grilled Beef Tongue, Sirloin Steak with Asparagus, two dishes of Yakiniku (Japanese-style grilled meat) marinated with soy sauce, Tofu-Anchovy Salad, Grilled and Seasoned Corn, two types of Beef Skewers, Gambas al Ajillo, Rice, Udon Noodles and finally, Pineapple Sorbet as dessert.
These dishes can vary slightly depending on the day.
The lunch omakase (with three less courses) is 35,000 won and the dinner is 60,000 won. Uzik Robatayaki also has an extensive whiskey menu with plenty of Highball options and a very reasonable corkage fee of 10,000 won.
“Some customers ask if they can order extra food when they call to make reservations, but once they start eating, most people feel full by the time they are served the gambas,” said Woo.
Woo said that the biggest advantage of a beef omakase for the customers is that they get to try a wide array of beef cuts.
“We try to incorporate diverse parts of the cow during the course, from its head to toe, and serve the best quality cuts of the day.” Beef cuts that were served included beef tongue, sirloin and neck chain, otherwise known as rope meat.
Uzik Robatayaki uses only Wagyu beef from Australia.
Just as important as the food to Woo, is the conversation.
When asked what he wants to do in the future, Woo answered, “I just want to serve some whisky and tempura and talk with my customers. Instead of concentrating so much on the cooking, I want to engage in more conversations with customers because that is where my motivation comes from.”
Coffee omakase at Baram Coffee
A hole in the wall in Seodaemun District, central Seoul, Baram Coffee is in its 10th year since first opening in Jeju Island.
Baram Coffee offers omakase at three different price points: 20,000 won, 30,000 won and 50,000 won. While the number of cups served is the same, the types of coffee bean vary.
With around 25 types of single-origin coffee, CEO of the cafe Joe Kim, said that just a few times trying the omakase can “make you a coffee expert!”
“I ultimately want customers to discover their love for coffee,” he said.
Kim meticulously designs the tasting menu in an order that allows customers to each each flavor to its fullest. He also caters to customers’ individual tastes all the while explaining the different coffee beans and the history of coffee.
Though four cups of coffee may seem like an excessive amount, Kim assured that the omakase isn’t loaded with caffeine.
“Caffeine content depends on the brewing time of the coffee,” said Kim. “The amount of caffeine in our omakase amounts to about one cup of espresso.” In addition, the antique cups that Kim serves the beverages in can only contain some 250 milliliters.
When asked what coffee means to Kim, he answered, “Everything.”
“I may be a borderline caffeine addict,” he jokingly added. Kim drinks about 10 cups per day.
“I think of coffee as a type of medium that brings people together,” said Kim. “During all these years of running a cafe, I have never once had a negative encounter with a customer. I interpret this to be a positive energy that good coffee has. Good coffee has a power that puts people in a happy mood.”