notes + observations + star addresses
THE GLORY OF K-BBQ, A.K.A. KOREAN BARBECUE
Affectionately dubbed as K-BBQ - just like K-pop (Korean pop music) or K-beauty (Korean cosmetics and skincare) - Korean barbecues are tiny carnivorous feasts grilled right at your table over a central bed of hot charcoal. Oh sure, I had eaten at K-BBQ restaurants before (namely in Los Angeles, Berlin and Toronto), but never before in South Korea. So coming to Seoul for the first time and indulging at a galbijip in its Motherland was not only a big check off my foodie bucket list, it was also a major highlight of my trip to Seoul.
If you know me, you know I can't go aimlessly to a new city and pick restaurants at random. There is much digging in guidebooks, hitting up hotel concierges and Googling on the web. For me, this task of restaurant-hunting is not only essential but entertaining. In my research, I found that the Korean word galbi (also written as kalbi) means "ribs." Likewise, galbijip means "rib house." Galbi can also, however, act as a metonym and denote any kind of barbecued meat or meal. Thus, going to a galbi restaurant does not necessarily mean you only eat ribs. During my brief but galbi-packed visit, I indulged in various grades of meat, both pork and beef, marinated and non-marinated. A good rule of thumb is that the better quality the meat, the less likely you are to marinate it.
In the end, I went to four K-BBQ restaurants - two, twice. Bo Reum Sae in Gangnam was the best galbi restaurant that I went to. It had just received a Michelin star when I was there in 2017 (more on this, keep reading). Having said that, I also had a tremendously satisfying meal at Mapo Jeong Daepo (in Mapo) where there were rolls of toilet paper on the wall in lieu of napkins. Fancy that.
In light of this contrast, I'd like to highlight these two Korean barbecue restaurants at opposite ends of the price spectrum (and in opposite ends of the city) to share with you how different galbijips present their own tasty merits.
Bo Reum Sae
Nobody at the restaurant spoke English (not a reproach - just an observation), so there was a bit of confusion over my request for "sparkling water." Everyone, though, was warm and accommodating. The menus were kindly translated, so ordering was just a matter of pointing and smiling.
Bo Reum Sae is known for their superior cuts of beef from a family-owned, black-cattle farm on Jeju Island. I decided to go all the way with the "Premium Tender Loin" that was presented very elegantly with a decorative flower. As I stared at its bright red flesh and intricate marbling, before it even started to sizzle and fill my nostrils with smoky sweetness, I knew already that I would be back. Served alongside a parade of tiny salads - some creamy, some spicy, all delicious - this Jeju beef knocked me out with its flavour. Laced with herbal, grassy notes that I love about beef from the U.K., its fatty, juicy, savoury chunks consumed me with pure BBQ joy.
And let's not forget how the meat was cooked to perfection. In Seoul, it is custom that your server prepares and grills your meat for you. I thought in the beginning that I would find this awkward, that I might want to be the Queen of my own Q, but in the end our server was very impressive with her savvy technique and know-how (see my video below, 57 seconds), that all I could do was sit back, enjoy the show and sip from my glass of Malbec.
When I went to South Korea in 2017, the Michelin guide had recently added Seoul to their illustrious list of gastronomic cities. Bo Reum Sae had been awarded one star, and when I was there I remember nodding gleefully in approval as I chewed on each tasty morsel of meat. Sadly then, in 2018 the restaurant lost its prized star and was demoted to the lesser "Plate" category, or L'Assiette in French. Despite the step backward, I would still highly recommend this as a steller barbecue destination, Michelin star or not. In fact, it's the first place on my list should I ever go back to Seoul.
Mapo Jeong Daepo
The specialty here is galmaegisal, a Korean delicacy otherwise known as pork skirt-meat or, more precisely, the diaphragm of a pig. (It's the first item of the Korean-only menu on the wall.) It seemed to me to be a kind of "poor man's beef" (the more expensive of the two meats) as it is prized for its similar texture and colour - with all the flavour of pork! Marinated for hours to achieve its celebrated tenderness, the meat is also scored to allow for better absorption. I'm not exactly sure what is in this magical marinade, but I assume it's a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, garlic and pepper. Galmaesigal is certainly not the beef tenderloin that I enjoyed at Bo Reum Sae, but it had a glorious tastiness all its own. You can't and shouldn't compare apples to oranges, or in this case beef tenderloin to marinated pork.
When the galmaegisal is sufficiently cooked, it's meant to be eaten wrapped in a leaf of lettuce or perilla (a kind of plant popular in Asia that belongs to the mint family). Again, my server showed me how to pile the leaf with meat and kimchi and all the other condiments on the table, then fold it up, a little like you do with Peking duck.
I wanted to come to Mapo Jeong Daepo, specifically, not only because it had Anthony Bourdain's televised blessing, but because of the brilliant "omelette ring" that I saw on his show. Since the grill is on a slight slope, all the savoury fat drips into a kind of shallow moat filled with an eggy liquid. Even though this establishment is more the self-service kind, when I clearly did not know what I was doing, my server showed me how to add mujeolim (thin strips of pickled white radish) and pacha (green onions sliced lengthwise and very thin) so that the end result was a spectacular egg cake, crunchy with salty vegetables and greasy with meat fat (see the above video, 58 seconds).
One more K-BBQ
This last galbijip is part of a chain, but I'd say one of the higher-end chains. I'm adding it to my list because they had a great selection of beef and wonderful sides, including a creamy pumpkin (or acorn-squash?) salad sprinkled with sliced almonds, which I still dream about, and awesome kimchi (spicy but not deathly). I never learned the name of this restaurant, but I included images of the back and front of their business card (as well as the pumpkin salad!) in this slide show if you'd like to check it out. Otherwise, that's about it regarding my love affair with K-BBQ. Tell me your favourite K-BBQ joints in any city around the world, and I'll be sure to add them to my must-eat list if I ever go there. Mashikeh-mogo! which means Bon appétit ! in Korean.
Music for both of the YouTube videos above: www.hooksounds.com
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