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Less is more for one-specialty dining
Publication Date : 14-01-2013
One star dish or drink proves enough to attract gourmands
Catering to an increasingly food-savvy and blog-centric population presents a challenge to chefs and restaurateurs aiming to stand out from a burgeoning crowd of eateries, cafes, bars and bakeries.
To meet the growing expectations and get noticed, some establishments are focusing on one or two stellar signature dishes instead of wearing themselves out serving a wide variety of eats and drinks.
“Seeking out tasty spots has become an increasingly big thing through blogging, for instance, so people tend to prefer places that do one item well rather than shops that serve a vast range of so-so dishes,” said Suave owner-chef Kim Yong-rae. “So I think that is why places that specialise in one thing are popping up.”
“Essentially, then, what you are getting are places that exhibit their own character, that do what they do well; and that, in turn, makes for better quality as well,” he added.
True to his creed, Kim, 35, opened a shop devoted to handmade caramels in Hongdae in 2011. Christened Suave, the store offers customers a selection of 20 different kinds of caramel, neatly packaged in translucent wrappers.
A staunch believer in quality over quantity, Kim sticks to making his caramels by hand, churning out only around 300 daily.
Soft, slightly chewy and delicate to the palate, Kim’s treats allow flavours like maple or fragrant black tea to shine through. Caramel is also worked into puddings, including the scrumptious, dense and rich flan-like custard version.
“By focusing on caramels, I guess you could say that Suave has formed its own identity,” Kim said.
Identity is something that any eatery, cafe or bar strives to establish firmly in diners’ minds. One particular food service company has been successful at achieving that.
Headed by prominent CEO Paik Jong-won, The Born Korea Inc. masterminded and spawned successful restaurant chains Bornga, Saemaeul Sikdang and Hanshin Pocha.
In 2009, The Born Korea unleashed yet another brand with Choi Kang Jip, a spicy jokbal (pig’s trotters) and sundae (blood sausage) rice soup restaurant.
“When we first opened, response was good because of the jokbal sauce,” said Choi Kang Jip’s Nonhyeon flagship store team head Yang Sung-uk. “People found it novel.”
Choi Kang Jip currently boasts two outlets aside from the original Nonhyeon-dong spot.
To give patrons maximum chewy cartilage per trotter, the restaurant only serves relatively small ankle-to-toe cuts called “mini jokbal.”
After being boiled, the trotters are slathered in a fiery sauce infused with seasonings like oregano and cinnamon and thrown onto a grill. To amp up the flavours, the trotters are basted repeatedly with the sauce.
Diners are encouraged to don disposable plastic gloves, for hand-to-mouth-eating that Yang says makes for a “rustic” dining experience. Plus, it is easier to gnaw off every last little bit of spicy, gelatinous cartilage by grabbing onto each trotter with both hands.
Though a few trotters later, some might find themselves sweating, crying or panting from the chili-induced heat of the sauce, it is precisely that addictive spiciness that has customers coming back for more.
“Just making this jokbal involves a lot of steps and it felt like it would be enough to just do this one dish,” Yang, 40, said on why the menu sticks to trotters, alongside its other main dish, sundae rice soup.
“The trend of this generation is to be professional about it and specialise in one thing.”
In other words, diners want a place that makes the best of the best, a spot that has received the masses’ approval for doing a specific dish properly.
Earning such acknowledgment is not easy, which seems to be why more restaurateurs and chefs are devoting their energy to mastering one item rather than overexerting themselves with many dishes.
“If one tried to make lots of different things, the quality could drop,” said Hana owner-chef Kawakami Daisuke. “I would rather sell one good item than a wide variety of items.”
Kawakami first came to South Korea five years ago to study Korean. A native of Japan’s Kansai region, which is famed for its okonomiyaki, Kawakami opened a small restaurant devoted to the cabbage-filled pancake dish in 2008 with the aim of bringing a cultural piece of his heritage to Seoul.
“In Japan, okonomiyaki is commonly eaten as a meal,” Kawakami, 37, said, explaining that there are many places that specialise in the dish in Japan. “I wanted to showcase real okonomiyaki.”
To maintain consistency and quality, Kawakami himself grills the okonomiyaki to order at Hana, spooning the egg-rich, cabbage-filled batter over the large griddle, studding it with slices of pork belly or other toppings in Kobe fashion, before sprinkling a bit of batter over it once more.
After about 10 minutes, the thick, frittata-like pancake is served, topped with okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise and sprinkled with katsuobushi.
Kawakami has no plans to expand his small Sinchon-based restaurant or deviate from his two main dishes, okonomiyaki and soba.
“I want to be able to oversee it all and handle the cooking,” he said. “Rather than make my shop bigger, I just want to maintain it as it is.”
This single-minded trend is crossing over into the beverage market as well, with bars specialising in specific types of alcohol proliferating throughout the city.
Beerlogy, a newly minted beer lounge near Garosugil, is one such spot. The small, chic establishment sells 62 kinds of bottled beer and has two on tap as well. To top it off, all cocktails on the menu are also made with beer.
Customers can order from a selection of India pale ales, cider and craft beers including a particularly opulent 93,000 won brew.
“Our motto is to drink better beer, not more beer,” Beerlogy director Lee Seung-kwon said of the impetus behind this ambitious bar.
“I think it is important for a place to exhibit a certain amount of professionalism,” said Lee, 38. “It is about having a signature.”
Judging from the carefully curated selection of hard-to-find brews behind the counter, it looks like Beerlogy has gotten its signature down pat and is well on its way to joining the growing crop of uber-focused hangouts populating Seoul.
Suave 1F, 342-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul; (02) 324-9884; open noon to 9:30pm daily, closed Sundays; caramels cost 3,200 won for five, 6,200 won for 10, 9,200 won for 15, 11,900 won for 20.
Choi Kang Jip 167-30 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; (02) 549-0410; open 24 hours daily; spicy jokbal (pig’s trotters) cost 15,000 won for a small, 22,000 won for a large order.
Hana 5-32 Changcheon-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul; (02) 365-1312; open noon to 3pm, 5pm to 11pm, Mondays, Wednesdays through Fridays; open noon to 11pm on weekends, closed Tuesdays; okonomiyaki costs 7,000 won to 9,000 won.
Beerlogy 542-1 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; (02) 515-6425; open 6pm to 2am daily, closed Sundays; bottled beer costs 6,000 won to 93,000 won.