I’m not a very good restaurant reviewer.  I think it’s because I worked in kitchens through college, and I study classic techniques and keep up with all the new-fangled stuff.  Gimmicky restaurants don’t dazzle me.  I see through the tricks and know the shortcuts.  I’m of the mind that it doesn’t matter how pretentious and high class you make your restaurant–if the food doesn’t deliver in taste and satisfaction, it’s crap.  It’s even worse crap if people have to pay extraordinary prices for it.  I’d much prefer to get some rib-sticking Kongbiji Jjigae at a cramped blue collar diner.

I get asked to check out many restaurants these days.  And I have to come up with ways to not totally trash them, even if they’re horrendous, so I tend to put code words in reviews.  Note that if the atmosphere and dining ware take up most of the review, it’s best to stay away.  But I do find many great restaurants on these hunts.  It just hurts and gets me a little angry when we get the bad ones and the grossly incompetent ones, especially when there are so many great restaurants that are struggling, dying off or not even getting off the ground.

Because of my day job schedule and the fact that I live in an outlying suburb of Seoul, I’m not that plugged in to the Seoul dining scene, though I’m trying to remedy that.  Eun Jeong and I are frequently doing research.  But it always seems things fall through, and I end up cramming a bunch of reviews on the weekend before deadline.  I hate this because nothing ever goes smoothly.


A couple of years ago, I decided to do a theme article on restaurants on the green subway line.  We researched and headed out on the coldest day in January, hunting for these places that were unique and raved about.  Most all of them had closed down.  One god awful place was an American-style fusion sushi cafe that served one dish of raw fish in melting ice water and reusable plastic flowers as its garnish–not the most sanitary thing to place atop of raw food.  What makes it even more frustrating is that a lot of publications are cheap and won’t reimburse for restaurant reviews, will reimburse for maybe one entree or just won’t take any negative reviews.  So we have had to foot the bill for bad restaurants that were unreviewable.

Luckily, my current gig reimburses–as long as there’s an article attached.  And they help find restaurants in Seoul.  So the plan has been to find four romantic spots for the February issue.  I had done two of them, and they were good.  There was an Italian restaurant in Bundang that had been suggested to me for a long time, but I found that it had just closed down.  While walking down the street after eating at one restaurant, I spotted a sign for a creperie.  I thought, “Oh, that could be romantic.  Have a nice dinner and a delicate crepe afterwards.”

I had to check out this one new Korean restaurant.  The creperie was in the neighborhood, so it made sense to try it afterward.  Good ole Paul “Ajosshi” Matthews joined me for lunch at the Korean restaurant, which was one of the few Korean joints in the Itaewon tourist zone.  Despite being in the tourist zone, this place didn’t have English menus.  Paul and I can read Korean, and Paul is very fluent, so that wasn’t a problem for us.  It was questionable why a restaurant in the tourist zone would only cater to Koreans.  It was really nice in atmosphere.  But at its heart, it was really just a grill house.  The prices were pumped higher than your average place, and the portions were much smaller.  What made us really scratch our heads was the pitiful banchan that was put out–kimchi, shredded leeks, marinated garlic and marinated sesame leaves.  That was it.  No other side dishes.  No lettuce for wrapping.  Not even ssamjang paste.  Just a little salt and sesame oil, upon request.  I don’t think they understand that one of the selling points for Korean food is the massive number of free side dishes.

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The meat and the few side dishes were fine, but my mind kept wandering to the concrete floored place in Mapo-dong I like with much more meat and sides at a cheaper price–which actually tasted better.

It then dawned on me.

Since certain streets in Itaewon are getting the reputation for being upscale restaurant areas, this must be a place that is trying to make fine dining Korean food–and is totally missing the point.  It’s the Gaon all over again.  It’s made to impress other Koreans, despite being in the heart of the tourist zone.  I’ve seen this many times.  They see that fine dining in the western TV and movies has nice plates, bottles of wine and snooty waiters–so they copy those aspects while sacrificing the enjoyment of the diner.  Some people are impressed by this crap.  If they are, they deserve to waste their money.

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Photo by Paul Matthews

Having spent twice the money on half the food, Paul and I left, still hungry.  We were looking forward to some crepes.  We walked over to the place that said “Creperie” on its sign and sat down.  Paul thumbed through the menu.

“Joe, I’ve looked through this once.  I’m going to look through it again, but it looks like they have no crepes here.”

It dawned on me.  Oh, no.  It’s Korea!  Just because it says “creperie” on the front, you can’t assume they sell what they advertise.

Paul talked to the server, and the server got the owner.  The owner did that nervous laugh that Koreans do in awkward situations that infuriates westerners–to our ears it sounds condescending even though that’s not the intention.  She explained that her little tortilla pizza cafe (yes, coffee and pizza–the classic combination) was part of a franchise, and a couple of the restaurants did serve crepes, but not hers.  She then went on about how she was confounded that foreigners would come into the shop expecting crepes.

Paul explained maybe it was because she was in Itaewon, where people can read “creperie” and expect crepes.  It’s like walking into a place called Burger Shop and the owner is surprised that you want a burger.

She gave that laugh again.  She spoke so fast that I couldn’t parse the Korean that well, but I heard the word “English” regarding the sign.  I think she was assuming that since there were Roman letters on her own sign that it was in English–not French.  She apologized and left.  Paul and I looked at each other.  I couldn’t review a creperie that had no crepes.  So we moved on.

That’s the maddening thing about some Korean businesses.  They’re not even aware of what’s on their signs.  They don’t even know or care what their own businesses are about.  It makes you wonder how they’re getting the money to open up.  The sad thing is that places like this that totally miss the point end up surviving while good places die.  Note the line that is always wrapped outside the door of Smokey Saloon.

Paul lives in the area, so he came to the rescue and tried to find an emergency replacement for my last review, since the Italian restaurant and creperie were no-goes.  We walked around Hannam-dong, but most every place was closed since it was the weekend after New Year’s.  Luckily, we did find a German-themed bakery and cafe, Passion5, that more than made up for the duds.  It was impressive, even to my negative jaded self.  The place had high prices, but each dish was a treat.  I have no trouble paying a little extra if the dish is good enough to become a lasting memory.

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The star was the Chocolate Chou–a 10,000 won hot chocolate.  But it wasn’t a cup of hot chocolate, it was a three-stage dessert.  I ordered the dark version, and they came out with the gorgeous rich thick liquid.  The server gave us instructions on how to drink it (yes, I know–just follow me).  When we were half finished we put these chocolate-covered strawberry confections in our cups and stirred them until they melted, creating a whole new level of richness.  Then with the powdery grounds at the bottom, we were given vials of kirsch and rum with big eyedroppers.  We washed our cups down with our choice of alcohol.  I’d say that justified their price–at least Paul and I made sure we got our money’s worth.

I had to head down to Bundang by the time we finished, so I said goodbye to Paul and jumped into a taxi with Dan Gray of Seoul Eats to take a bus down there.  We met Joshua Hall of Wine Korea.  He was on the same mission I was–finding a good wine spot for his magazine deadline.  Josh knows a lot about wine–or he’s the ballsiest bullshit artist I’ve ever met.  He was trying to see if there was a wine scene in Bundang.  We met at a little cafe restaurant that someone suggested to him.  I was still in my post-creperie negative mood.  I’ve come to not trust cafe restaurants.

This place was known for its burgers and paninis.  We didn’t see much on the menus we were given, so we asked the owner about the burgers and paninis.  He trotted out some other menus, which had good selections–overpriced but intriguing.  Unlike Smokey Saloon, this place at least included fries in its price–and good ones at that.  I wanted a little drink to start the night but noticed not much alcohol on the menu.  They did have a sangria and a mojito.  I had said that they were likely virgin juice drinks.  Josh asked about the sangria, and the owner verified that there was wine in it.

Oh, there’s alcohol?  I’ll get the mojito then.

Nope.  It was a 10,000 won glass of juice.

The three-cheese burger was pretty good, though.  It had a good kick of gorgonzola.  The avocado-fish panini creeped everyone out.  I didn’t get to try it, though.  The place was okay, but not worth returning unless they lowered their prices a bit.  Let them gouge the naive.

When we walked out, we walked right by a franchise of the infernal creperie place.  This one was done up as a French bistro.  The food looked good.  Dan and Josh went in to check to make sure, though–confirmed–no crepes.  I think the restaurant was following me around, taunting me.

We took a bus to this central area, hunting for these wine bars Josh found in his research.  It was the “eating on the green line” article all over again.  Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it actually exists in real life.  We trudged around in the cold.  I amused myself with finding awkward English on signs.

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"you can have our fill of genuine chinese food at this restaurant"

Funny how the omission of one letter can change the meaning of a hole sentence.

We were having little luck in finding a wine bar–especially one that was open on a Saturday night (it makes sense somewhere).  We stumbled upon a wine shop, and Josh was in paradise.  He spent over thirty minutes going crazy over the wines there.

“You don’t understand.  I haven’t been wine shopping for three weeks.  My fridge is empty.”

And people think my obsession is strange.

While waiting for Mr. Wine to stock up, the rest of us came to the conclusion that the fractions of burger and panini did not a dinner make.  Rather than going to a wine bar, we considered just going to a Korean grill joint.  There was one across from the wine shop (Chaljin Gogi 찰진고기 031-711-5040).  The wine shop ladies said that they allowed us to open the bottles there.

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We went to the restaurant, and the owner said the wine was cool.  It was one of those butcher-restaurants that I like so much.  You’re able to get quality meat there, and they feed you well.  The wine shop tossed in some really nice crystal glasses for free, so we broke those out.  The restaurant lent us a corkscrew.

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We went through one bottle pretty quickly.

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After some great pork we decided to go for a little Hanu beef.  Josh had just the wine, but he said it was a little too cold.  He needed to warm it up somehow.  So what do you do when you need to warm up a bottle in a flash?

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I think the wine term for this is “nutting the wine.”

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After the wine was properly nutted, we enjoyed some beef.  Then a few rounds of beers.  And we were the last ones to leave, long after the serving staff had clocked out.  This was a great place and a great time.

Josh and I both had frustrations in our research.  But both of our missions turned out successfully.

Just watch out for any restaurant that advertises itself as a creperie.

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