By: Jaimelynne Toh
As an avid visitor of Seoul, my many trips to the Land of the Morning Calm has led me on many a tumble down the rabbit hole in search for the best spots for every gastronomical occasion. Not a fan of the noisy and overrun, I seek out quiet but famed eateries (a surprisingly tough line to toe) to satiate my need for peace and a space to clear my head after a day of touring, while delighting the tastebuds.
On a trip last winter, my Korean native friend took me to a very interesting cafe in Euljiro, a little off the main street near the river. He confessed that he wanted to take me to a place that he was sure I had never heard of or been to before, knowing that I was a pro at navigating the city. I have to admit I was a little rattled and thoughts of Netflix’s stalker serial killer series, You, flashed through my mind as he led me down obscure alleys lined by old shops manned by scowling grandpas.
Hyemin Dang is housed in what used to be an old medicine dispensary and local clinic from the 1900s, the space had been transformed into a cafe reminiscent of popular retro-themed drama, Mr Sunshine. I was tickled when they served my americano in a shallow bowl, much like how they used to serve traditional medicine. Much of the old decor was preserved, with prescription cabinets in the second floor sitting area and delicate antique taps for wash basins. The cafe is rather lowly lit – while it makes for a cosy atmosphere for chatting, it may not be appropriate for those of you trying to sneak in a quick read.
Hyemin Dang, Coffee Hanyakbang
Seoul, Jong-gu, Samildae-ro, 12-gil, 16-6
My favorite dessert house to date remains Ongo-Jishin, a tea house that mixes both traditional and modern for the most delicious fusion. Nestled in the second story of a shophouse in the busy streets
of Sharosu-gil, an affectionate nickname for the trendy street near Seoul National University, Ongo-Jishin serves up various blends of hot teas and coffees, as well as traditional desserts. Snacks are served on a traditional low platform where visitors can sit cross-legged or across low coffee tables and stools. The name in Hanja characters means embracing the old while knowing the new, perfectly describing their menu that features modern twists on old treats. Their three feature dessert set includes a savory iced treat covered with Injeolmi (soybean) powder and a sesame crisp, mochi bread coated in mugwort and corn powders, as well as a tray of sliced pound cakes served with cream. There is even a small terrace area for dining alfresco in appropriate seasons. Sharing the set with non-alcoholic drinks for two will set each person back by about 15USD and while there is no menu in english, the staff speak conversational English or pointing at what other customers have on their plates may get you through.
Seoul Gwanak-gu, Bongcheon-dong, 1620-32, 2nd Floor
One of my other Seoulite friends happens to be a professionally trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America and currently runs his own local-produce selection store near Jayang Traditional Market. From fresh produce to vacuum packed ready-to-eat side dishes and jars of preserves and sauces, Dosi-Gotgan is run based on the philosophy of Buy Local, Bye Local, supporting local youth farmers.
Apart from my visit to his store that was packed with local housewives in searching of organic local groceries, he readily gave me a list of restaurant recommendations for my week-long trip. Knowing that I am a huge fan of pasta and pizza, he recommended Darobe, a pizzeria with a branch in upscale Cheongdam-dong and a more relaxed vibe offered at Seongsu-dong. I was already in the area so I headed to the latter and ordered what might have been the best mushroom cream pasta in my life. The porcini crema is the right amount of buttery and savory, without being greasy and they were extremely generous in servings. Another famed pick is their Bismarck pizza, topped with mozzerella, prosciutto, chicken ham and a poached egg.
Seoul, Seongdong-gu, Seoulsup-gil 47, Samho Building 1st Floor
Dosi-Gotgan Seoul, Gwangjin-gu, Jayang-ro, 15-gil 65
While you are in the area, I may as well let you in on one of my favorite haunts. The Seoul Forest Seongsu-dong area is home to many indie cafes and select shops, including one where you may enjoy a three-tiered lunchbox. EERT is decorated in natural wood with bamboo plants dotting the perimeter. Customers can sit on a raised platform like traditional houses, dangling their feet in the relaxational sandpit. The lunchbox often changes with the season, featuring a strawberry theme in spring with strawberry desserts and a Japanese snack theme when I visited in summer – onigiris, chicken karaage and pickles.