Last year, I was diagnosed with cancer a month after my birthday trip to Seoul. So, to celebrate my remission this year, my husband took me back “to make new memories, hon.”
My Seoul 2015 series begins here.
In this series:
The 30°C heat is what hits my Bin and I when we step out of the airport. We were struggling with 0°C weather when we were here in February 2015, and the difference is remarkable and an adjustment.
No matter. The first order of the day is dinner and it’s KFC – Korean Fried Chicken. We’re still getting our bearings and can’t seem to find our favorite fried chicken place from last time, so our hotel’s helpful concierge directs us to his favorite, Kkanbu Chicken.
Initially, when we order the spicy soy chicken, our server vigorously shakes his head and mutters, “Too spicy!” Knowing too well that the Koreans’ “spicy” can verge on the nuclear, we veer to the more benign green onion chicken, boneless meat topped with leeks. Crisp-fried, it crackles and crunches giving way to oozing juice and the slight acidity of the green onion. Somewhere, a lick of heat amplifies, lips tingle. Quick! A handful of fries stuffed into the mouth to mitigate, ready for the next bite. Korean fried chicken is unique in itself and eating it again here in Seoul is like coming back to an old friend.
Walking off our dinner along the streets of Myeongdong, I breathe in deeply, the now-cooler night air rides on whiffs of red pepper, hot coffee, and some unfamiliar nose-tickling scents. Restaurant doors swing open and shut, peals of laughter tumbling forth and the sound of clinking glasses.
Somewhere, my Bin and I stop for dessert at a place that’s selling mochi. They’re a breath away from closing time but graciously accommodate our request for patbingsu, the now universally-loved Korean shaved ice dessert. Nuggets of mochi dusted in roasted soybean powder galvanize a sprawling smear of red bean paste adjacent to a scattering of sliced almonds. A combination of contrasts: crunchy, cool, soft, sweet. Suddenly, summer in Seoul seems bearable.
The convenience stores in Seoul are fascinating! I truly wanted to try this “butter latte” but am intimidated by its size. Honey-butter flavor is huge in Korea and this beverage reportedly blends butter from Normandy with the flavor and aroma of milk. Note to self: always say yes.
Apgujeong is an upscale shopping district near Gangnam, an area generally recognized as the forefront of fashion and trends. The glitzy Galleria Department Store houses many of the luxury brands and if you’re a food lover like I am, don’t forget to check out Gourmet 494. At the basement of the West building, it’s an excellent supermarket and fancy food court.
I fell in love with Garosu-gil on my first trip to Seoul and I fall even harder for it this time around; it truly is one of my favorite Seoul neighborhoods. Its name means “tree-lined street,” a reference to the gingko trees that adorn the avenue. It’s a busy, happening place frequented by fashionably dressed people.
A rather perplexing but intriguing name for a café. I did say Garosu-gil was unique.
One of my all-time favorite Korean foods is something I call crazy tteokbokki, although I think it’s more correctly known as Korean army stew or budae jjigae. It’s a one-pot stew of spicy sustenance, literally a hodgepodge of processed meats, veg, seasonings, and what-have-you. The best place to have it is at Mukshidonna Tteokbokki, which has several locations in Seoul.
The broth is the same, a fiery furnace of red teeming with noodles, kimchi, and ddeok (rice cakes). It’s up to you what else you want to put in, but please don’t forget to add cheese – lots of it! It makes the stew more lush and there’s nothing that stirs the senses more than melting strings of cheese stretching over a hot pot.
Sipping and slurping through the spice and searing heat, our sinuses open, our souls sated. I love this dish because of all those things plus the fact that it’s a communal dish that you customize and cook. Doesn’t get any better than that.
Sulbing is a popular Korean dessert café and for the summer, they’re offering an enchantingly named yogurt melon snowflake sherbet. An entire honeydew melon is skinned and cored out, its center now a receptacle for a tantalizingly light sherbet, its smoothness interrupted by red beans and cornflakes. The melon is cold and impossibly sweet, the combination of all components is beyond words.
The best doughnut in the world
Wandering through the back alleys of Garosu-gil, I’m shocked and ecstatic to spot a Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. It’s a beyond-famous bakery from San Francisco whose cruffins (croissant-muffins) command mile-long lines. When I was in SF last April, I became completely enamored with their doughnuts, the best I’ve ever eaten. And now, I’m thrilled to be introducing my Bin to them.
Photos from my visit to Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in San Francisco.
The distinctive neon sign has been retained in Seoul reflecting the wit and vibe of the US store.
The mighty cruffin, what people will wait in line for. (Maximum of two per customer).
The first thing that my Bin says after he sinks his teeth into the brioche doughnut is, “70% cream, 30% doughnut!” Hefty in hand, this is the most seductive doughnut you’ll ever meet. One bite sends a cascade of custard careening toward your open mouth, the aroma and taste of vanilla intoxicates. The cruffin is equally exceptional, my Bin actually prefers it. The croissant’s crumb is paper-thin and crackly, the custard almost the same as that in the doughnut. So enraptured are we with the sweets at Mr Holmes Bakehouse that afterwards, we leave with goofy grins and remain dazed for the rest of the day.
Establishments mentioned in this article
Kkanbu Fried Chicken – http://www.kkanbu.com/eng/menu/menu_list.asp?menuType=K
Mukshidonna Tteokbokki Restaurant’s original store is in Anguk-Dong. Other locations include Myeongdong, Hongdae, and Garosu-gil.
Mr Holmes Bakehouse – http://www.mrholmesbakehouse.com/locations/서울