10 best Korean restaurants in Seoul
'Best of' lists are controversial, unscientific, inherently subjective and are guaranteed to result in bellyaching. But they are good for precisely this reason: they get us talking about food.
In order to compile our own list, we spoke with a number of certified “foodies” – people who obsess about food about as much as we do. One of those people is Jun Kyung-woo, the co-author of best-selling book Dining in Seoul.
“The first question is: how do you define Korean food?” says Jun. “Is it the ingredients? Is it Korean because it exists in Korea? Is it what Korean people actually eat?”
Indeed, the constantly shifting topography of Korean cuisine now includes dishes like pizza topped with fried shrimp and sweet potatoes and Chinese food like jjajjangmyun (black bean noodles). Respectively, they are branded “Italian” and “Chinese” food, but are so heavily Koreanized that they would be unfamiliar to native inhabitants of those countries.
“Korean food has deep roots,” says Jun. There is a long, dynamic history that includes a certain ingredients and flavors like soy, garlic, red pepper and techniques like salting, pickling, and braising. So while an outlandish pizza might be an entirely Korean product, for this list, we are looking at food that has a long genealogy on the Korean peninsula.
That being said, our conception of Korean food isn’t narrow. We value the bowl of naengmyun from the restaurant that has operated for over three decades as much as the artfully constructed plates that filters Korean flavors through molecular gastronomy.
There is an astounding breadth to Korean cuisine. We’d like to think that this is a start.
Song Jook Heon (송죽헌)
True hanjeongsik, or traditional Korean food, is all about space –- literal, physical space.
“With real hanjeongsik, you would wait in an empty room,” says Gang Heon, a noted music and food critic and owner of Wagit, a membership-only restaurant in Itaewon.
“Then they would bring in a table filled with 30 different dishes. Where there was nothing, suddenly, there would be an abundance.”
It is difficult to find restaurants that still operate this way.
“As a result of Western influence, there has been a shift,” says Gang.
In a concession to Westernization, most hanjeongsik restaurants in Seoul offer food in time-based courses rather than the cornucopia of plates overflowing the table. According to Gang, if you are going to stay in Seoul, you would do well by going to Song Jook Heon, the Seoul location of a restaurant across the street from the secret garden of Changdeok Palace.
The original location is in Gwangju in Jeollanamdo, and offers a delicious spread of dishes that include grilled abalone with pan-fried ginkgo berries, duck patties with a hint of ginger, and codfish dumplings with an egg white foam.
They will also grant particular requests, so they will serve you samgyetang or spicy chicken stew if you call ahead.
Reservations are absolutely necessary.
The meal ends, in true Jeollado style, with rice and a variety of jeotgal and jangahjji or salted fish eggs and anchovies. The flavors are pungent, unapologetic and not for first-timers.
“It’s hardcore,” says Gang.
The lunch menu starts at ₩25,000 per person; the dinner menu starts at ₩70,000.
37-1 Unni-dong, Jongro-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 운니동37-1); +82 2 763 4234; Open Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m., 6:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
Yong Su San (용수산)
If the Jeollado style of royal cuisine is, as Gang says, the “boss” of Korean food, then the food from Gaesung, the former capital during the Koryo dynasty, is its main rival. Where Jeolla food is boldly, almost aggressively, flavored, the food of Gaesong is clean and more subtle.
Gaesong style lends itself more easily to Western palates. The restaurant Yong Su San has opened a number of branches over the past three decades, including one in Los Angeles.
Gaesong food also has the advantage of being visually stunning, whether it is the gujeolpan -- crepes with finely julienned vegetables and proteins separated according to color -- or sinseollo, a soup with a bounty of meats, seafood and vegetables served in a heated silver brazier.
Yong Su San has multiple locations.
Lunch starts at ₩38,000. Dinner starts at ₩56,000.
Yong Su San main branch, 118-3 Samcheong-dong, Jongro-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 삼청동 118-3); +82 2 771 5553; www.yongsusan.co.kr; Open daily, noon-3 p.m., 6 p.m.-10 p.m.
Eulji Myun Oak (을지면옥)
“Naengmyeon is a distinctly Korean dish,” says Gang. “It’s not just noodles, it’s soul food.”
Gang's favorite naengmyeon restaurant is a somewhat rundown restaurant that has operated for over 30 years called Eul Ji Myun Ok.
“They have maintained a lot of that traditional flavor,” he says.
The flavor is not robust and meaty in the direction that many naengmyeon restaurants have taken as of late, but rather clean and refreshing.
Eul Ji Myun Ok has a sister restaurant (actually run by the sister of the original founder) called Pil Dong Myun Ok (필동면옥) around Chungmuro. Which one is better? According to Gang, Eul Ji is better.
“It’s a little down-home.”
A bowl of naengmyeon costs ₩9,000
177-1 Yipjung-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 중구 입정동177-1); +82 2 2266 7052; Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., closed on the first and third Sunday of every month.
To Sok Chon (토속촌)
To Sok Chon is famous for being famous. It used to be a favorite of the late president, Noh Muh-hyun. It’s a mainstay in guidebooks to Seoul, as evidenced by its popularity among tourists, and yet, the hype is well-deserved.
The restaurant is best known for one thing: samgyetang. The young, spring chicken -- stuffed with chestnuts, garlic, dried jujubes, and most importantly, ginseng -- is slow-cooked for hours on end. The food is meant to reenergize a flagging spirit, and traditionally, is meant to be eaten on one of the three dog days of summer, the sambok.
But once you've tasted the broth -- at turns nutty, sweet, and soothing -- you're not going to want to wait until next summer to taste it again.
A bowl of samgyetang costs ₩15,000.
85-1 Chaebu-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 체부동85-1); +82 2 737 7444; Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Si Hwa Dam (시화담)
“We run this restaurant like a museum,” says Oh Chung, the owner of the newly opened Si Hwa Dam. “There are things here that you can only see at a museum.”
On the entrance floor, there are display cases filled with ancient relics and antiques, including traditional burial accessories from the second and third centuries -- clay ducks and roosters, spiritual intermediaries between heaven and earth.
These artistic sensibilities take center stage on plates of food that seem too gorgeous to be consumed.
The food itself stands meekly against such presentation -- two fish balls made of flounder sit on a cascade of pebbles next to the flourish of a budding branch of an apricot tree.
“We don’t want one thing to dominate,” says Oh. “But rather harmonize with the rest of the dish.”
Indeed, the meal is a parade of handcrafted plates (there are different prix fixe menus according to price), each decorated with flowers that had been picked that day. The food though, fades from memory like a fuzzy dream that has just left your grasp.
There are four course menus available at lunchtime, at ₩100,000, ₩150,0000, ₩250,000 and ₩350,000. At dinnertime the prices start at ₩150,000.
5-5 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 용산구 이태원동5-5); +82 2 798 3311; Open Monday-Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Reservations necessary.
Gae Hwa Oak (개화옥)
Gae Hwa Oak takes the minimalist approach. The space is spare and simple: high cloth-covered chairs and deep, brown wood. The food is comforting and familiar: bossam (pork shoulder), bulgogi (marinated grilled beef), and chadolbagi (thin strips of beef).
By keeping their menu simple, they allow the beauty of Korean ingredients to speak for itself, whether it is the abalone from Wando island or raw oysters from Geoje island with a squeeze of a tart lemon sauce.
The pork itself is the famed black pig from Jejudo that has a chewy mouth feel because of the skin. For the beef dishes, the beef comes from a farm in Gang Jin in Jeollanamdo that feeds their cattle barley. The bulgogi uses only the tenderloin.
The owner, Sun-hee Kim realized early on that Korean food could be paired with wine. Gae Hwa Oak offers around 80 different wines to pair with their dishes, and the restaurant also allows diners to bring their own bottles to enjoy with the food.
“I wanted to break stereotypes that Korean food couldn’t be paired with wine,” says Kim. She says, for instance, that a medium-bodied California merlot compliments the sweet, meatiness of bulgogi very nicely.
The bulgogi, bossam and chadolbagi all cost ₩27,000. There is a set menu of five dishes, only available at lunch (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) for ₩35,000. A course menu for ₩50,000 is available all day.
661-18 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 강남구 신사동 661-18); +82 2 549 1459; www.gaewhaok.com; Open daily, 24 hours
The seafood restaurant Goraebul, literally meaning “whale fire,” takes its name from a seaside town in the northern part of Gyeongsang province where they get their seafood.
“The Eastern side is where the cold and warm currents meet,” says the general manager, Kim Eui-heon (김의헌), “So the seafood is very plentiful and diverse.”
The restaurant might be located around Yeoksam-dong in Gangnam, but receives its seafood fresh from fishermen on the east coast of the peninsula every morning.
Since the ingredients are so fresh, Goraebul often serves raw preparations of its seafood, whale, flatfish, and abalone to come chilled and sliced alongside sauces like the spicy and vinegary chojang or with some doenjang, fermented bean paste. The rest of the menu includes prix fixe courses that display the abundance of the East Sea with rock octopus, clams, and turbot.
Lunchtime prices start at ₩22,000; dinnertime prices start at ₩55,000.
828-53 Yeoksam 1-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 강남구 역삼1동 828-53); +82 2 556 3677; www.koraebul.com; Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Jung Sik Dang (정식당)
In 2009, chef Yim Jung Sik opened a restaurant in Apgujeong called Jung Sik Dang, a play off of his own name and the word for a prix fixe menu. While studying at the Culinary Institute of America, Yim formed a strong bond with some of his classmates with whom he would later open the restaurant.
Jung Sik Dang is one of the first restaurants in Korea to bring molecular gastronomic techniques to Korean cuisine. Riding on that success in Seoul, they have opened a second location in downtown Manhattan in Tribeca.
“We’re trying to think about Korean food from a different point of view,” says Pak Jung-Heon, the head chef of the Seoul restaurant. “We do a creative interpretation.”
The menu changes regularly according to the chef’s whims as well as the seasons. One of their signature dishes though, is a sea urchin bibimbap. They take a spin on a classic dish by using fresh raw sea urchin as the protein and a seaweed puree in place of the traditional spicy red pepper paste, gochujang which creates a salty, umami flavor profile. The dish is finished with a sprinkling of toasted millet that lends the rice a smoky crunch.
Set menus start at ₩40,000 person.
3F, 649-7 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 강남구 신사동649-7 3F); +82 2 517 4654; Open daily, noon-3:30 p.m. (Last call 2 p.m.), 6 p.m.-10 p.m (Last call 8:30 p.m.)
Jinju Jip (진주집)
“This soup can be universally appreciated,” says Jun. “It’s not expensive and you can eat it comfortably.” There is little pretension when it comes to dining after a long hard night of drinking. After all, when you are in need of a hangover cure, nothing will quell an upset stomach quite like a hearty bowl of beef soup.
Jinju Jip, located in a nondescript alley near Namdaemun, is open 24 hours for precisely that reason.
Their specialty is an oxtail soup where the meat has been braised for hours and is so tender that it quivers at the touch of a spoon.
Their oxtail soup is priced at ₩17,000 a bowl.
34-31 Namchang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 중구 남창동34-31); +82 2 318 7072; Open daily, 24 hours
Byeokjae Galbi (벽재갈비)
No list would be complete without a good old fashioned Korean barbecue restaurant. When it comes to meat on a grill, nothing is more important than the quality of the meat, and no one is more obsessive about that than the owners of Byeokjae Galbi.
The meat comes from organically fed Korean cows, also known as hanwoo, which is much costlier than most of the imported beef.
“Korean beef is more similar to Japanese kobe,” says Jun. “People in Seoul like the meat to melt in your mouth.”
Prices start at ₩28,000 per person at lunch and ₩36,000 for dinner, with an additional 20 percent tax.
467 Dogok-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 강남구 도곡동 467-29); +82 2 2058 3535; 벽제갈비.kr (Korean); Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (Last call at 9:30 p.m.)
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