Alex and I went out for dinner tonight to a Korean Grill restaurant down the road.
This was my first real Korean restaurant experience, and experience is certainly the right word. I’ve been too intimidated by what I’ve seen from peering through open doors to go to one all by myself – and certainly, I don’t know nearly enough Korean words yet to be able to do so without some difficulty. Alex has been here longer than me, and has mastered reading Hangul, so even though he might not know what most things are, at least he can say them! And he took me to a restaurant where he’s gone on his own several times, so I just left all the ordering to him.
It was a warm, cosy place with a friendly and laid back atmosphere, and no menus – only a board on the wall with a short list. That’s because it was a grill restaurant, so you basically just pick one of the few meat options and everything else automatically comes with it.
No sooner had we sat down than a waitress appeared with two huge trays of stuff. She proceeded to cover the table with banchan (side dishes), from shiitake mushrooms sizzling on a little hotplate, to kimchi, to dipping sauces, soup, and raw vegetables like spring onions, whole garlic cloves, beansprouts, and various lettuce and cabbage leaves. This picture was taken after just the first of the two trays. We sat there, our table laden with food, and then the waitress came to take our order! I like this country.
We got what I think was samgyeopsal. It consisted of small, thick chunks of pork belly meat, and it was brought to the table raw, in a bowl. We watched as a waiter filled the hole in the centre of our table with red hot coals, and then fitted a grill over it. Then we threw on the raw meat and grilled it ourselves. It smelt (and sounded!) fantastic. And it all felt very relaxed and fun, too. We added some things from our banchan dishes to the grill, like huge pieces of raw onion, kimchi, and some garlic cloves.
Eating it has the kind of “ritual” experience that I enjoy so much about Japanese sushi (soy sauce, wasabi, ginger…) and Chinese pancakes with crispy duck (duck, vegetables, hoisin sauce…). You grab one of the many available leaves (I don’t know what any of them were other than some kind of lettuce and cabbage), and hold it in one hand. Then with your chopsticks in the other hand, you take a piece of the meat, dip it in various sauces, and place it on the leaf. You can add whatever vegetables take your fancy, and then you wrap it up into a little parcel, dip it in soy sauce or one of the oily mixtures, and eat. I am not a professional food critic, so I will simply conclude by saying: yum yum!
We shared a bottle of soju, the Korean national drink (tastes a bit like vodka), as well, and on our way out we stopped to grab ourselves a free ice cream cone each from the self service freezer and stand at the door.
It was a really fun night. I think I may want to eat out all the time, now! And what’s more, I can probably afford to. If you choose the right places, it’s really about the same price as cooking for yourself every night…