Itaewon used to be a place for foreigners who live in Seoul to hang out or Korean people to try “exotic” cuisine. For a long time, Itaewon was about the only place one could not find Thai food or French food. Nowadays there are many other places (Hong-Ik University area, Seorae Maul, Gangnam Garosu-gil, etc.) to try out hip and popular non-Korean cuisine, but still Itaewon boasts a lot of popular places for tapas, Mexican food, Japanese Izakaya, authentic French baking, and so on.
Itaewon still attracts a lot of foreigners and tourists. It’s a fun place to walk up and down and shop. (Although there are too many fake items that are not even that cheap!) However, Itaewon is not famous for Korean restaurants. There are some grilling places, of course, but it is more famous for Japanese Izakaya or other cuisines mentioned above.
About a year ago, an ambitious (and very proud) Korean chef opened a restaurant called “East Village” in Itaewon. I found out about this restaurant through the chef’s blog as well as on numerous Korean restaurant blogs. The chef-owner, Mr. Kwon, is a young man who trained at Kyunghee University’s Culinary course, and worked abroad (mostly in the USA) for a few years. He also worked in Korea for various restaurants and restaurant chains. Then he traveled many areas of Korea searching for great ingredients (best gochujang, soy sauce, dried mountain vegetables, honey, sesame oil, etc.), and he believes that Korean food can be more than just grilling meat or bibimbap or so called “palace cuisine”. He also doesn’t use MSG. Naturally I became curious and checked it out while I was in Korea in November 2011. (And then went back in summer 2012.)
Kwon says East Village is trying to establish itself as “Korean Bistro-Pub” – not a stuffy course-meal oriented one, or a restaurant specializes in a few limited items. He wants to serve creative, new dishes with seasonal ingredients, rather than things that people are familiar with. Many Korean people are not familiar with creativity or dish-oriented Korean meals. People usually go to “Hanjeongsik” places for important meetings, or pick a dish they want to eat (say, grilled beef ribs or cold noodle or chicken soup) and then go to a restaurant famous for that particular dish. On top of this big difference, East Village looks more like a cafe or a casual Italian restaurant than a typical Korean restaurant. Plus their wine list is not great and somewhat overpriced. They have a few Korean drinks available, but not much. But still – it’s a good restaurant that serves good food, and I want more people to know about this place.
First of all, the food. On my first visit I went with my mom, dad and younger sister. We didn’t opt for the course meal, but ordered a few main dishes to share.
Beef Salad (18000 Won) – Salad with grilled Korean beef (1+ level), home-made soy sauce, and dressing with homemade plum syrup and wild sesame oil.
I usually don’t like wild sesame oil (sometimes called perilla oil), but this was delicious. Vegetables were fresh and crisp, beef was tender and juicy, and the dressing was great. (Oil was a bit separated from the rest of the dressing, but not a big problem)
Fried Chicken with sweet and savory sauce (“Tak Gangjeong”) – this is a very hot item in traditional markets all over Seoul and the rest of Korea. Tak Gangjeong usually means small pieces of chicken (without bones) fried and then stirred in sweet, sticky sauce (usually containing some nuts). It’s a bit sweeter and stickier than Yangnyum Tongdak (whole chicken cut up, fried, and then tossed in sweet and sour kind of sauce).
16000 won seems a little pricey for any friend-chicken dish, so I hesitated a little bit before ordering this. However it was a great dish, pleasing to everybody – the batter, quality of chicken, and the tasty sauce that was not overly sweet. Still, it’s a little expensive (even in America, chicken wings are not over $10 and it’s hard to find an appetizer that’s over $15)
Ttok-galbi (price has changed a few times..now I am not sure how much, but around $30~40) – thick meat patty made with chopped beef rib meat, char-grilled with sweet and savory seasoning. Garnished with rice wrapped in pickled vegetable (“gom-chui”), grilled garlic and stir fried mushroom.
Ttok-galbi takes a lot of time and effort, if you use only the meat from the ribs. East Village’s chef writes on his blog that the kitchen staff spends over 4-5 hours everyday preparing this dish, cutting of meat from the ribs and chopping it. East Village’s Took-galbi is perfectly grilled and seasoned. A lot of times restaurants sell overly sweet ttok-galbi made with ground beef, not chopped rib meat, but this one was different. Again, it seems a bit pricey from a Korean restaurant’s stand point. It’s the price only for this dish, not including the usually expected parade of side dishes or rice.
We also had Assorted Fish Stew (26000 won) – fish soup with gochujang (Korean chili sauce) and vegetables. We ordered it because mom and dad needed some kind of soup and rice to finish the meal with, which is normal for any Korean meal.
This was also great. Every dish we ordered was made with very good quality ingredients, presented well, and was delicious. Also delicious was the “Dolsot Namul Bap” (rice with various cooked vegetables in a stone pot).
My favorite was actually this rice dish. It had really fragrant yet delicate mixture of cooked vegetables and amazing quality rice. Gochujang served with this dish was also great – not the overly sweet store-bought kind, but the traditional kind with deeper and more complex flavor. (But some Koreans complain that this dish is too expensive and too plain.)
On my second visit with my family, I ordered Beef sashimi sushi and dandalion salad with pasta in addition to the dishes mentioned above.
Grade 1+ “Hanu” (Korean beef) with sushi (vinegared rice), and “Toha-jeot” (fermented fish sauce) inside, served with wasabi and soy sauce. This was an interesting dish, and my husband liked it a lot. The raw beef – fermented fish combination might not appeal to some people, though.
Dandalion pasta salad was really good. Perfect combination of sweet, tart, bitter, and salty flavor and al-dente pasta worked great with soft dandalion leaves. This was a seasonal dish from late spring into early summer.
Overall everything was great – great ingredients, prepared well, and not too salty or sweet which is often a big problem in many Korean restaurants. All the plates and dishes they use are pretty. The bathroom condition was great, too. And the service was excellent – not too stuffy or mannered, but just friendly and smooth. The chef-owner shops at the Noryangjin Fish Market every morning, and prepares everything from scratch. He tries to have the best ingredients available. There are some stand-by items (the ones that we ordered), but the course-meal and “Today’s Special” items change according to what the chef finds at the market. (Usually the dinner course meal is about $50/ 65 per person. Lunch course is around $16-$25 per person, which is probably the best deal at this place.)
My mom and dad were surprisingly satisfied with this restaurant. They said they would come back, although it’s a bit pricey for what they are used to paying at Korean restaurants. My sister was a bit skeptical in the beginning, saying the ambiance is not right for a Korean restaurant, but loved the food and has been back a few more times with her friends. However my younger brother and younger cousin weren’t too impressed. They are typical Korean guys who works at big firms, who eat out and drink almost everyday. They like more “traditional” Korean restaurants. Maybe what East Village needs is a more targeted customer base and a menu that’s catered to them..?! (And I really hope there will be a decent website soon!!)
East Village just celebrated a year anniversary in July, and the menu has changed a little bit. A few more soup and rice dishes were added for Koreans, and lunch items were added. In the late evenings, some of the menus are offered at a lower price as “Korean Tapas”.
I think his food is of excellent quality, and what he’s trying to do is meaningful. I just hope that the menu, food and everything else will hit the right note soon and hopefully it will be one of the hottest places for Korean food in Itaewon.
Address: Seoul, Yongsan-Gu, Hannam-Dong 736-9 (It’s on the Itaewon road. From the Itaewon Subway station, exit 3 and walk straight toward the Jeil Advertising company.)
Open: Monday through Friday 11am till 2:3opm for lunch/ 5pm till 3am for dinner and drinks+dishes/ Sunday noon till midnight (This had changed a few times, so you may want to call ahead)