Simple Ideas

Soups On

Cafe Reviews | December 15, 2010

Spicy vegetable soup. As much as anything, that was the reason I was nosing my way into Yongsusan restaurant. This dish was the only Korean food I enjoyed when I lived here 20 years ago, so I was trying to track down a piece of my past. Ok there was more. I'd lived in Yongsan and my mom is a Susan. So there was Mom and home in the mix also.

I quite literally stumbled upon this place when the lights went out on my running trail one morning. It was a beacon that drew down a path on an ice covered sidewalk.

As I was preparing to exit the country last week, I had found a new soup I liked, Ddeok Mandu Guk. It is a rice cake and dumpling soup that, when peppered up, really works. Almost as well as the now mythical soup that I used to enjoy in Chinhae. Frequent inquiries in Seoul drew a blank, so I shifted into "Ok, any veggie soup, lets roll with that."

After finding this spot on my run, I googled it. They had a menu on-line. Prices were 3 or 4 times what I had been used to seeing for lunch. The veggie soup was the least expensive option. Elsewhere I'd be looking at maybe 5 or 6 dollars. Here it was roughly 25. The rest of their lunch menu settled in around 40-70 dollars. I had my doubts, especially after talking with a local who said "You know sometimes expensive is only expensive. But good is always good, regardless of the price."

I was taking a leap here, but why not? It was just food. And money. And right there is the core issue with writing a food review. You are swapping money for food almost every time. It is hard to get away from the price to quality aspect on the one hand. On the other hand, you are getting an experience. So I'd like to set aside the price issue for a while and focus on the experience.

The signs on the entry indicate "Zagat rated" and "English spoken here". Zagat is a good sign, the English even better. I had been prepared to point my way through lunch and hope for the best. My experience may be better than I expected.

I answered "no" to the reservations question and indicated digitally that it was just me. I was seated at a four top across from a couple local ladies who were already well into their meal and enjoying a lively conversation. A menu appeared and I quickly found the soup option at the back of the menu. That being the least expensive item, I got "the look" from the waitress. I wasn't entirely going low budget as I really did want the soup, but that was the message that went across the culture. Single guy, no friends, limited cash. On the upside, I wasn't looking to date the waitress, so no loss for me.

First up was the pottage and the side of water kimchee.

Never had either of these dishes before. The pottage was the culinary equivalent of a set up pitcher in baseball. You can't run a team without one such athlete, but they never make the headlines. It was the most nondescript item on the menu. By itself, it was unremarkable. But with the water kimche, ah it started to come to life. The kimche involved crisp slices of some firm vegetable that featured a nice crunch and tanginess. That made the pottage work better as a backdrop to this star.

This was quickly cleared and the next wave of food arrived. Here the waitress transferred two noodle dishes to my plate, one she said was mung bean noodles, the other wasn't.

Both were excellent. But the real star was on the outer plate. This was the Kaesung style salad. Julienne strips of vegetables with something orange, persimmon perhaps, mixed in. The dressing and texture were flawless. In general, the American version of a salad is an embarrassment. Next to this, it would barely qualify as food. The dressing was both sweet and tart, probably more tart, just enough to bring out the full flavor of the vegetable. At this point, I'd already had my money's worth for the meal, but I was still in the early innings and oh yeah, I wasn't going to talk money, just experience. Sorry.

I caught the waitresses eye and indicated I was a needy diner. "Fork?" she asked. I waved that off. ""Uh, could I get some soju?" she smiled "Ah what kind?" Sheepishly I offered "I have no idea, never had it before." another smile "I will choice for you!" Shortly she returned with a bottle and showed me the label "Jinro, this is very famous brand!" Ok, then, we were off. The soju, a rice wine, came in at 19.5% alcohol. Yow. it was poured into a quite elegant decanter featuring an indigo ice well that was used to cool the beverage. On the visual alone, it was worth the experience.

Soju is the perfect beverage for Asian food. Hard to believe it is 39 proof. It does go down like water. Generally, high alcohol beverages really amp up the heat in spicy food. Somehow, this doesn't. My best explanation for this would be, um, oriental magic.

Next up was the beef dish. This was served on a skewer with a pancake and tempura.

There was a small bowl of something spicy along with it. The portion sizes were always small, so even though this would end up running to something like 13 courses, I was nowhere close to stuffed.

There was a salad, this one more traditional. I was getting the hang of the flat chopsticks. Though I will say they are tougher to work than the round ones. They are also metal, so really, you have to work to hold them. Well I do anyway.

Regular kimchee appeared at some point, it was quite spicy. Equal to the best I'd had this week. It is easy to slip into a wow induced coma at some point. I was there, comfortably there about midway through the menu.

Oh, then the pork belly.

My daughter asked via text how this was prepared. I had no idea. Perfectly seemed like the best answer, but that didn't transmit much data. I could say that it was not cooked over direct heat. I'm pretty sure it was cooked in a very moist environment as it did not crisp as is the common method of preparing it in the US. I'd guess there was steam and a few herbs involved. End result was tender, bursting with flavor. Better than the Kaesung salad, which to that point was the best food I'd had all week.

The food never seemed to stop. There was a brilliant seafood dish with glass noodles. There was a rice ball soup where the balls had a texture that reminded me (in a good way) of bait I used while fishing as a kid. Not the flavor as I never ate bait, but they had the same texture that I recall going on a hook.

There was one odd soup that was made with "You know, the rice stuff!" as the waitress eloquently explained. Ok at that point I was game, mebbe it was rice husks or some byproduct of the rice game that everyone in Asia knew and that a round eye could shuck and jive his way through knowing.

That all preceded the main course, which was the soup I ordered.

It came with a side of "purple sticky rice" and, um. 5 side dishes.

One of those was some sort of orange caviar that went really nice in the rice bowl. So nice that they refilled that bowl.

By the time desert arrived I was a goner. They could have brought out the fork now and used it on me. They owned me. I'd have eaten anything they put on the plate or even close to a plate. Dessert was not what I expected, to the extent I expected anything. There were two bite size baked items that was only moderatly sweet, then an elegantly sliced apple that brought the baked items to life. There was a side of plum based fruit punch. All that mattered at this point was that I had cleared every one of the 13 courses they put in front of me, and didn't feel logy


Nah I was great. I had two thimbles of sujo left. I finished those and then sat there wondering about how the bill worked. This was my first solo effort, so I finally asked for help the "pay here or at counter" question.


And that was that.

In the end, I'll say that I'm a guy who eats across the food spectrum. I can be happy with a fast food breakfast sandwich (done well) on up to the higher echelons of the foodie world. I find maybe one place a year that just knocks my socks off. There is a place in Oregon, one in Virginia, two in New York City, one in Europe. And now, one in Korea.

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