6 best tapas in Seoul
Given Korea's love affair with small plates, it should thus come as no surprise that Seoul’s affinity for banchan has carried over into a hunger for tapas.
In recent months, the Spanish specialties have spread across the city faster than you can say “¿Que pasa?”
Bursting with flavors from the tongue-tingling saltiness of anchovies to the piquant sharpness of Manchego cheese, tapas at these eateries prove they’re tops around town.
1.Tapas Thursdays at the Banyan Tree
With a new Spanish general manager shaking things up, the Banyan Tree began offering Tapas Thursdays at its Festa Bistro and Bar in August. Dishes like the rich, aioli-blanketed croquette stuffed with Serrano ham and potato give diners a taste of home -- that is, manager Alfonso Romero’s homeland of Spain.
The Tapas Thursday promotion, which runs from 6 p.m.-11 p.m. every Thursday, gets you four tapas, plus two bottles of Peroni Nastro Azzuro beer for ₩40,000. (Yes, Peroni is Italian, but the light, crisp beer accompanies the tapas’ strong flavors nicely.)
The tuna confit topped with savory olive tapenade, fried squid with zesty anchovy dressing and the marinated olives come highly recommended.
San-5-5 Jangchung-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu (중구 장충동 2가 산5-5); +82 2 2250 8170; www.banyantree.com
2. Mi Casa
Another newcomer to the Seoul tapas scene is Mi Casa, the two-month-old baby of Spanish gyopo Mark Cho Wendel. A promoter of Spanish wines, olive oils and spices, Cho thought a tapas restaurant would be an ideal showcase of his products.
“I wanted to bring back something of the culture I grew up with to share with friends,” says Cho, who spent more than 20 years growing up in Alicante on the east coast of Spain.
Cho’s coastal roots have a strong presence on the seafood-studded menu. Standouts include the ruby-red salmon curado al eneldo, which comes streaked with creamy, sweet dill, and the gambas al ajillo, which highlights the restaurant’s famous olive oil from La Mancha by arriving at the table bubbling hot, just the way Koreans like their meals.
iPads serve up Mi Casa’s menus and Foursquare app users can rack up a free bottle of vino.
Jaerim Building, 91-1 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu (서울시 강남구 청담동 91-1 재림빌딩); +82 2 546 3979; www.micasa.kr
3. El Olivo
You may need to schlep all the way out to Gwacheon to visit El Olivo, but its pastoral location is quite the asset.
Harry Kim, the restaurant’s owner, has successfully created a slice of the Spanish countryside accessible to Seoul with his custom-built, Spanish-designed lodge to house the taperia at the foot of Mount Gwanak.
Tapas are chef Bernardo Novas’ specialty, and one of the best deals in the house is his brunch set. Just ₩15,000 gets you salad, three small plates and a cup of imported Oquendo coffee.
One trio includes pulpo with soft, boiled potatoes dusted with imported bittersweet paprika, the tender solomio minced rib meat and albondigas meatballs in a creamy almond-pumpkin sauce.
The eatery gets extra street cred with its plans to serve as a Spanish cultural center closer to Seoul (the official one is in Daegu) and the Spanish ambassador’s presence at the grand opening in April.
363-25 Gwacheon-dong, Gwacheon City, Gyeonggi Province (경기도 과천시 과천동 363-25); +82 2 502 1156; www.elolivo.co.kr
At eight years old, Albaizyn just might be the oldest Spanish restaurant in Korea. While newer places might favor sleeker decor, Albaizyn is a rustic hole-in-the-wall packed with tchotchkes from the Iberian peninsula.
While the menu has a limited selection of tapas, restaurateur Simon Jung says when he’s in the mood to try something new, small plates provide him the perfect opportunity to experiment -- so call ahead if you’re a real tapas hound.
Regular dishes include homey albondigas in tomato sauce and gambas al pil-pil, a shrimp dish that gets its name from the “pil-pil” sound that sizzling olive oil makes, says Jung.
For longtime visitors to Albaizyn, it’s worth noting that the restaurant changed its menu two months ago. That’s thanks to the addition of Rose Lee, the new Spanish gyopo chef, who will oversee switches every season.
Hyehwa branch: 74-6 Hyehwa-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 혜화동 74-6); +82 2 741 5841; www.albaizyn.com
Hongdae branch: 166-2 Donggyo-dong, Mapo-gu (마포구 동교동 166-2); +82 2 334 5841
5. El Plato
Another stalwart on the Seoul tapas scene is El Plato, which, over the years, has managed to thoroughly reinvent itself.
Chan Kim is still at the helm, but the original restaurant moved last year from its cozy space in student-heavy Hongdae to a much larger, modern Garosugil location.
“When El Plato was just a baby, we mostly served students and stuck to an easy menu,” says Kim, as he shows off El Plato’s much-expanded offerings.
“But now it’s like a teenager, and so we’ve elevated it by changing the kitchen staff and serving more complicated tapas.”
Longtime favorites like the deep-fried patatas bravas are still available (and still at low prices) but now there are the “gourmet tapas” like montaditos de jamon y huevo. The latter is an open-face sandwich packed with all the flavors of Spanish cuisine, from the salty ham, crispy shreds of fried potato and soft, slightly sweet egg.
Gangnam branch: 540-5 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 신사동 540-5); +82 2 325 3515; www.elplato.co.kr
Gangbuk branch: Seoul Finance Center, B2, Taepyeongno 1-ga, Jung-gu (중구 태평로1가 서울파이낸스센터 B2층); +82 2 319 3502
A Seoul favorite among Spanish residents, Bodega has endeared itself to its core crowd even more with a recent change in its kitchen.
Barcelona native Manual Manzano started as the new chef about a month ago, and he is working with a wealth of Spain-sourced ingredients, from an extensive wine list to jamon iberico, sweet paprika, cloves and oregano.
Manzano himself recommends his crispy croquetas, which come with a variety of fillings, from chicken, jamon or even mushroom and cheese. He also suggests the crowd-pleasing Spanish omelet made with potato and onion.
The grilled Patagonian toothfish with Manila clam in vinegary salsa verde is another foodie-approved choice. And who could turn down the earthy taste of garlicky fried mushrooms?
Inter-Burgo Building, B1, 130-5 Samjeon-dong, Songpa-gu (송파구 삼전동 130-5 인터불고빌딩 B1층); +82 2 3432 8686; www.bodega.co.kr/
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