Best dry-aged steakhouses in Seoul
For proof that Seoul food trends are about as predictable as next week’s favorite mobile app, look no further than the city’s soaring appetite for imported American dry-aged steaks.
Less than three years after the lifting of a U.S. beef ban prompted one of Korea’s largest anti-government protests in recent history -- and grossest, assuming you remember those angry manure chuckers at the Lotte Mart meat counter -- Yankee cow hasn’t just muscled its way back onto Korea’s supermarket shelves, Free Trade Agreement-paving checklists and revised import fact sheets. It’s suddenly got serious foodie street cred in Seoul.
Korea is currently the world’s third-largest U.S. beef importer and the biggest in Asia.
Its cow-craving capital is home to a string of recent hit steakhouses -- starring the shipped-in-from-the-states, dry-aged kind of cuts you find at your average goldmine chop shop in New York, Chicago or L.A. And sold for much more on this side of the Pacific. As in more than ₩100,000 for a 500 gram piece of meat.
What’s the big deal about dry-aged? And why so expensive?
Basically, the three-week minimum maturation process enhances taste and tenderness by letting natural enzymes break down connective tissue while controlled moisture-loss concentrates flavor.
The process also adds overhead and reduces the meat’s weight, which means you’re paying an extra premium per gram.
So is it worth it? Is more moderately priced “wet-aged” beef good enough? What’s a better dry-aged cut: USDA Prime or Hanwoo 1++?
These are all incredibly important debates best indulged with knife in hand at the following trendsetting tables.
“USDA Prime” is brazenly stamped all over the power lunch and dinner menus at this ritzy dry-age house populated by Gangnam-gu noblemen nostalgic for a taste of the chops they remember from their college years at Brown and Northwestern.
The Barn is open from noon to three for lunch and closes up through 6 p.m. after that.
Come evening, the softly lit, spare interior goes show-time with its Cobb and Waldorf salad teasers, heavy-hitting wine list and standard lineup of butter-basted, charcoal-grilled, dry-aged American cuts.
83-12 Cheongdam-dong (서울시 청담동 83-12), tel. +82 2 547 6633
Monday-Saturday noon-10 p.m.
The Steak House
The mid-city location is a magnet for hordes of bank tellers and embassy flunkies chowing on pizza, pasta and waffles downstairs at The Steak House’s better-known café, The Place. That shouldn’t stop meat connoisseurs from checking out the eatery’s smaller, quieter fourth-floor steakhouse.
Wet-aged American and Aussie beef cuts in the ₩20,000-₩40,000 range come with the usual fries, salad and creamed spinach sides.
But the house specialties are dry-aged U.S. ribeyes and sirloins that can dip below ₩50,000 if you settle for a 280-gram steak or aren’t above using a discount card like many of the plebeian meat hounds here.
11-5 Gwancheol-dong, Jongno-gu (서울시 종로구 관철동 11-5), tel. +82 2 734 1344
Lunch 11:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. daily
What makes prime American beef better dry-aging fodder than the local stuff?
According to this top chop house in Itaewon and its new outlet in Sinsa-dong, which is called Isabelle's The Butcher, absolutely nothing. All the dry-aged steaks here are Korean prime beef sold at a proud ₩9,800 per 50 grams.
In fact, given that foreign steaks have already been wet-aged during transport, the theory here is that purists will naturally opt for Grade 1++ Hanwoo, which hasn’t been wet-aged.
If you do want an American cut with your French onion soup or crab cake starter, Isabelles serves New York strips, T-bones and porterhouses on the menu’s wet-aged side.
Either way, any carnivore in this cozy, chandeliered dining room will probably agree that dry-aged steaks -- from home or farther afield -- deserve their serious fan base in Seoul.
119-17 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu (서울 용산구 이태원동 119-17), tel. +82 2 749 9827
630-21 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu (서울 강남구 신사동 630-21). tel. +82 2 518 9825
Lunch noon-2:30 p.m., dinner 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m. daily
GOO STK 528
At this small, dinner-only spot with a pile of firewood out front, it’s all about eating dry-aged American sirloins and T-bones with some London Pride ale and no jacket or guilt complex. Everything but the six-figure prices -- ₩104,000 for a 400-gram ribeye -- is disarmingly casual.
GOO has high ceilings, wooden tables and an open kitchen behind an L-shaped bar where chefs grill and pan-fry steaks in beef drippings in front of yuppie couples in sneakers sharing a ₩203,000 porterhouse with a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Comfort food side dishes include triple-cheese macaroni.
Owner Ian Kim took a serious leap when he banked on eaters paying a ransom for a slab of USDA Prime in the wake of people rioting against American beef.
The gamble paid off. Even the meat here gets reserved ahead, just like the tables.
528-3 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu (서울 강남구 신사동 528-3), tel. +82 2 511 0917
4 p.m.-11 p.m. daily