Category Archives: Cafe

Seoul Food Safari: Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Japan

New year’s resolution: revive food blog.

I published 14 posts in 2015, a little bit more than one per month, which is actually not that bad but I think I can do a lot better. I blame the strange and uncharacteristic fitness kick that took over my life in the summer… spent all my spare time run-walking and didn’t eat out that much. I don’t know what came over me. But thankfully, I have now entered winter hibernation which means a lot less moving and a lot more eating.

The smart thing to do would be to trash everything in my backlog and just start from my most recently eaten meal… but the very very small OCD part of me can’t bear to just let all these photos and experiences disappear into oblivion. So I’m gonna do a few quick photo-dump bulk-blogging posts to clear my library and actually get things up-to-date here. Because these places are still worth posting about, provided that they still exist.

I noticed that most of my backlog consisted of international food spots, so I’ve dubbed this series “Seoul Food Safari” and today our tastebuds travel to Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Japan. Click on the name of each restaurant for address and Naver map!

1. Samarkand Restaurant, Ansan (technically not Seoul but . . . eh.)

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On our second visit to Ansan, we had dinner at Samarkand which is an Uzbek restaurant that comes highly recommended by everyone on the internet who has written anything about good food in the Ansan area.

The waiter greeted us at the door and didn’t seem to want to let us sit inside. “Inside? Smoking only outside.” Because we clearly look like pack-a-day kind of people. I blame Matt’s long hair and facial scar (actually from chicken pox).

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It’s a small cafe-style restaurant, with an Uzbek mini-mart in the back. Walls decked with traditional Uzbek clothing (still in their plastic cover? maybe it’s just the owner’s drycleaning…)

I always get really confused about how to order at these kinds of restaurants. It feels most natural to speak in English because obviously I can’t speak Uzbekistani but it feels so weird to speak Korean (my second language) to another non-Korean person. But EVERY SINGLE TIME my English gets blank looks and I end up just awkwardly pointing at menu items. And then I overhear the waiter speaking fluent Korean to another table and feel like an idiot.

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Prices have gone up in recent years, but they’re still pretty reasonable. We ordered the Plov on the recommendation of an Uzbek friend who always talks about how much he misses it.

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Plov (also known as pilaf in other cultures) is a very simple dish of seasoned rice, carrots and lamb. The rice is incredibly flavourful because it’s actually cooked on top of the lamb and carrots in a dutch oven, infusing it with all the stock and spices.

The servingware here is beautiful too.

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We also got Samsa which is huge triangle-shaped pastry packed with a meat and onion filling.

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I LOVE meat-filled pastries, but they sadly do not form part of Korean cuisine (the closest thing would probably be fried dumplings). But these really hit the spot after being long-deprived of my Aussie meat pies and sausage rolls. I really liked the mix of spices that were present in each dish – relatively mild compared to Asian or Middle-Eastern cooking, but still gave every mouthful a very distinct and interesting flavour.

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We ended our meal with some barbecued lamb skewers which were charred and juicy and amazing. Lamb is the rarest of the meats here (most Koreans hate the smell) so its always a special treat and whenever I eat it I always exclaim something like “LAMB! I almost forgot how delicious you were!”

I knew absolutely zero about Uzbek food before this meal but I really enjoyed it. It was somewhat similar to the Middle-Eastern food that I know and love, but was also a new experience in itself. If you’re not keen enough to travel to Ansan, the goods news is that there’s a Samarkand Cafe in Dongdaemun that is also pretty well known (very close to Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station). I’m not sure if it has the same owner, but from the photos I’ve seen the food looks almost identical. Totally worth a visit if you’re sick of Korean food and want to try something completely different.

2. Lie Lie Lie, Yeonnam-Dong 

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In my quest to find the best Vietnamese pork roll in Seoul, Lie Lie Lie is the current frontrunner. It’s a tiny shop hidden in the alleyways of up-and-coming “hot place” Yeonnam-dong – an area next to Hongdae that is brimming with cool little shops, cafes, and eateries.

This place is great for a number of reasons. Firstly, all the bread is freshly baked daily on premises.

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Here is the oven to prove it.

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This is the closest thing I’ve found to the Vietnamese rolls from the “hot bread” bakeries in Sydney. While I do love banh mi served in a classic french baguette, this is the kind of bread that defines “pork roll” for me.

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Second, they stock cans and cans of the essential ingredient: LIVER SPREAD. Pork roll is not pork roll without the dodgy pâté, but this is the first banh mi place I’ve found in Seoul that actually has it. Pâté has a flavour and texture that Koreans wouldn’t typically enjoy, so I understand why places don’t bother with it but without the spread, whatever you’re selling isn’t banh mi; it’s a banh mi-inspired sandwich.

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They have four different types at the very good price of 5,500 won and of course I happily paid the 500 won extra for the chicken liver pate. I was only really interested in the cold cut version, but I was with a friend who had never tried banh mi before so we ordered three different ones for the sake of variety.

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The grilled chicken and spicy pork banh mi were both really good (the spicy pork one tasted a bit like Korean-Vietnamese fusion) and all the essential vegetable components were present:

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Cucumber, carrot, pickled radish, fresh chopped chilli, spring onion, and coriander. They could be a bit more generous with the fillings, but hey, at least everything was there and nothing weird was added (I’ve had some banh mi here with iceberg lettuce. That’s no-no.)

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The best BY FAR was the cold cut w/ pâté. The only thing missing was the maggi sauce, so it wasn’t quite the lovely, messy, sauce-soaked experience of a Sydney pork roll but it was more than good enough to satisfy my cravings.

A word of warning: the rolls are quite small. One roll per person is not enough for lunch – we were quite happy with three rolls between the two of us but I could easily polish off two myself if hungry enough.

There are a couple of other banh mi joints on my radar, and if any other place manages to beat Lie Lie Lie on flavour and authenticity, it will for sure make an appearance on this blog, don’t worry.

3. Fukuoka Hamburg, Hongdae

I have learned to embrace the hamburg “steak” – the minced beef steak substitute enjoyed in cattle-poor nations, otherwise known as a “patty” or “rissole” in places where red meat is more of a staple than a luxury. It is sad excuse for steak, but it does the job when my belly craves beef but my wallet can’t afford it.

I first had hot-stone self-cook hamburg in Tokyo and I loved it. Every bite of fatty hamburg is perfectly cooked to your liking, still sizzling from the magic stone. It’s also just a fun eating experience, and having individual cooking stones feels much more refined than grilling meat in a barbecue grill built into your table.

I found this place after watching two characters go on a date here in a Korean drama. The drama sucked, but at least it led me to Fukuoka Hamburg – a trendy chain restaurant that has a few locations around Seoul These photos are from about six months ago but I actually went back the other day and it was just as good as I remembered.

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This is the “egg garlic” hamburg that comes on a bed of scrambled egg and garlic chips. You can also just get egg hamburg, egg cheese hamburg, or the PREMIUM egg cheese AND garlic hamburg. You can get the hamburg steak without the egg too, but why would you?

The steak comes in XS, S, M and L sizes and even as a pretty big eater, S was enough hamburg for me (even without any rice!) The self-cooking forces you to eat quite slowly, so I was quite satisfied by the end of it.

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You not only get your own personal cooking stone, each person also gets their own smoke ventilation pipe. And if your hot stone starts to cool down, they give just replace it with a new one.

Safety tips: DO NOT TOUCH THE HOT STONE. Not even when its cooled down. And wear the disposable aprons they give you if you want to protect your clothes from sputtering beef fat.

It’s on the pricey side for casual dining in Seoul (starts at around 10,000 won for S size) but it’s 100% hanwoo from cattle bred and raised in Korea – so the quality of the meat and the self-cooking makes it taste so much better than your everyday hamburg. And none of that gross ketchup/Worcestershire sauce nonsense that hamburg steaks usually come swimming in.

The first time I had Fukuoka Hamburg, I ended up at a Japanese dessert cafe by complete coincidence. We were just wandering around looking for something sweet and came upon Be Sweet On, a really adorable cafe that does house-made Japanese style desserts.

Seoul is generally very good at desserts, but most cafes just have a variety of pre-made cakes and/or bingsoo. This place is unique because it serves these beautifully made-to-order desserts that look like what you’d get as the final course at a fancy restaurant.

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This is the Mont Blanc -puréed chestnuts with a quenelle of dark chocolate ice cream.

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And this is the tarte tartin – puff pastry with vanilla cream, caramelized apples, vanilla ice cream, and a thin apple chip on top.

This place ain’t cheap but they’re the prettiest desserts I’ve had in Seoul.

So that’s it for this instalment of Seoul Food Safari. In the next episode, we take our bellies to China, Britain, and Hong Kong. See you then!

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The Sydney of My Dreams (Three Blue Ducks, Porch, and The Bucket List)

The other night, I dreamed of Sydney. Not the house in the suburbs, or the high-rise office, or the long bus ride in between. I dreamed about the Sydney of postcards and bayside soaps. Where the ocean is a perfect reflection of a cloudless sky and the sands of the beach fade out to white.

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It’s a weekday, I’m blissfully unemployed, and I take two beautiful girlfriends to brunch somewhere famous. It has a silly name that makes no sense, but it’s okay because ducks can be blue in a dream.

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It’s small, cramped, and busy and the staff are cool and inattentive like we’re invisible. And maybe we are, it is a dream after all. Maybe our breakfast will just appear on our table like magic.

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But it appears that my imagination does not extend to magic, not even my dreams, so we order like in real life and wait a really, really long time for our food, like you would in real life, in real Sydney, at a real hipster cafe.

The food is, of course, vivid and specific.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, two poached eggs, one small salmon steak, wilted spinach, a small pot of hollandaise sauce and several fresh basil leaves.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, two poached eggs, half an avocado sliced and fanned out, one cherry tomato, halved, a small pot of hollandaise sauce, some red onion and several fresh basil leaves.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, baked eggs with chorizo and cannellini beans and several fresh basil leaves.

It’s strange that I would dream up food so dull – especially at a highly anticipated meal at one of the most popular brunch spots in Sydney. The large plates and sparse presentation make each item look cold and lonely on the plate, and the flavours are entirely plain and ordinary. Anyone can toast a piece of bread. Anyone can roast a tomato. Anyone can rip some leaves off a basil plant. Anyone can slice an avocado. Anyone can (with some care) poach an egg. Hollandaise sauce is something to be poured over a plate with no concern for calories, not served “on the side” in a pathetic quantity that even Gwyneth Paltrow would approve of.

In real life, I would politely pay the bill and silently vow never to eat at this place again. But this is a dream, and in dreams you can do things without fear or consequence, so I flip the table and yell “I WOULD RATHER EAT A MCMUFFIN!” and teleport to North Bondi.

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We end up at a place called PORCH and order our second coffees for the morning.

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This tiny little cafe has more pretty white people than I’ve seen for over a year.

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My friend Minju is there, so I must really miss her. But all she does is chat with her fiance on her phone, so she obviously doesn’t miss me at all. But then I realize that what I’ve missed more than anything is this:

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Aussie coffee. Coffee in Korea may meet my daily caffeine needs, but it is so soulless. You, however, are full of heart. It’s not just a matter of beans or milk or technique, it’s a matter of love. It’s how you soak up the Aussie sun that keeps you warm on the outdoor table. It’s how you carry the care and passion of the barista who made you; a bearded priest of a coffee-worshiping faith. It’s how you’re presented in playful ceramic mugs, made to resemble paper cups, that boast the name of the local group of blenders and roasters from which you were born. I wish I was there with you today and I’m sorry that I can’t be. *weeps*

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The dream goes on and we’re hungry again. We stop at a colorful beachside bar that sells food in buckets.

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I see more bare female skin than I have in over a year. All shapes, ages, and sizes in bikinis and sarongs. This is the Straya I love.

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I swear this isn’t a drug-induced hallucination but the bar where we order is crazy psychedelic. One-eyed aliens, pickled brains, and neon tigers. C’mon everybody lets all be friends and dance together until the end. 

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There are floor to ceiling windows that curve around the whole restaurant so that all you can see is beach.

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We order a bucket of prawns, that turns out to be half-full of ice, but it’s okay because I have a beer in my hand, a good mate by my side, and everywhere I look, all I see colour and sun and sea and sky.

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Also, fries. Thick-cut, crunchy fries. And fries make everything okay.

I feel so happy to be home but sad to know that I can’t stay much longer. I look to my right and see a message tattooed on the wood panel beside me.

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And I think, “Yes, you will always be.”

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Last Supper in Sydney @ Bills, Surry Hills

It’s August now, which means it’s been more than six months since I left Sydney and moved to Seoul. This is the second last Sydney restaurant I have left to blog about, and I’ve deliberately procrastinated posting these last two because even though it breaks all the rules of food blogging to leave a six month gap between dining and writing, I’m dreading the sadness of typing the last word on my final Sydney food post.

But I can’t drag this out forever. It’ll be about a year before I’m back in Sydney, even for a visit, so I should learn to embrace my new identity as a Seoul food blogger. Though, for some reason, the food here doesn’t inspire me to blog as much as it did in Sydney. I’m not sure why. It may have something to do with the fact that every man and his dog is a food blogger in Korea. Even the most obscure, nameless, back-alley neighbourhood restaurant will have a blog post dedicated to it, complete with photos and a map. It’s a bit intimidating, but don’t worry, I’ll find my foodspiration and keep doing my thing.

For now, wind back the clock to Sydney, circa December 2013.

I planned my final meals in Australia very carefully. I held so many “farewell” dinners it got a bit ridiculous and people started to realise that this was just an excuse for me to tick off as many restaurants on my list as possible before I left the country,

For the farewell dinner I organised with my dear work friends, I wanted to eat somewhere iconic. I couldn’t afford Tetsuya’s or Quay, so I settled on Bills.

In recent years, Bills has been overshadowed by the hundreds of hipster cafes that have popped up all over the city, but I don’t think any of those cafes would even exist now if Bills hadn’t paved the way and envisioned a cafe breakfast that was more sophisticated than a bacon and egg muffin.

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Did you know that Bills on Crown Street is open for dinner? It might seem a bit silly to have dinner at a restaurant that is famous for breakfast, but their signature ricotta hotcakes are actually on the dinner menu as a dessert option. There was also something else on the dinner menu that intrigued me and I was eager to check out: kimchi fried rice.

I LOVE kimchi fried rice. When you have over-fermented kimchi that is starting to smell alcoholic and week-old rice in the fridge, you would be justified in throwing both those things in the bin. But the smarter, less wasteful, more delicious thing to do would be to throw then in a frypan instead and make some kimchi fried rice. It is something people rarely pay money for, so I was very curious about whether Bills could pull it off as a proper restaurant-appropriate dish.

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The restaurant’s interior is clean, simple and unaffected by the trends that dictate most other restaurants and bars in the area.

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There is not a mason jar, clipboard menu or decorative heirloom in sight.

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They do, however, serve wine in a small glass pitcher, with a stem-less wine glass. I’d never seen this before but I kind of loved it – it felt really retro, like I was drinking hard liquor in one of the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

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Everyone was coming from their respective offices, so we ordered an appetiser as we waited for late arrivals. This is the semolina-crusted calamari with lemon, parsley, green beans and fennel – $19.50

The dinner menu at Bills is quite multicultural, which would usually raise some red flags, but I think Bill Granger is one of the few Australian chefs you could trust with a variety of international cuisines. He was one of Australia’s first celebrity chefs, has more than ten cookbooks to his name and has had a long partnership with the awesome Kylie Kwong, which is the thing that gives him the most street creed. The above appetiser was a very light, aussie-fied version of the Chinese classic.

The mains we ordered were from all over the world.

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From Italy, we enjoyed prawn and chilli linguine with garlic and rocket ($26.50)…

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and also a really lovely, rich ragu with seashell pasta and a few handfuls of parmesan shavings. I think this was a special – and one of the best dishes of the night.

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From Thailand, I chose the yellow fish curry with spiced pumpkin, peanuts, brown rice and cucumber relish ($28.50) – not something I would usually order, but I wanted something rich and full of flavour. The curry was a bit mild for my liking, but I love how soft, white fish soaks up the flavours of a curry.

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There are, of course, some Australian classics on the dish like this massive parmesan crumbed chicken schnitzel, with creamed corn, coriander and fennel salad ($27.50). Good for hungry meat-lovers who want something a bit more substantial than typical cafe fare.

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This is meant to be a a wagyu beef burger – but my health-conscious friend replaced the bun, cheese and fries with a salad. Not a life choice I could ever understand, but each to their own.

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And finally, from Korea, the kimchi fried rice.

Or so we thought.

This is listed on the menu as “crab, chorizo and house kim chee fried brown rice” ($22.50.) Normal kimchi fried rice can be made with just kimchi and rice, but you can also add some protein in the form of canned tuna or diced spam. So when we saw this on the menu we were all like “Oh! Crab! Chorizo! This is going to be the fanciest, most delicious kimchi fried rice evvvveeerrrr!”

In hindsight, this was foolish and we should have known that we were setting ourselves up for disappointment.

First, but kind of a side note, Bills is OBSESSED with coriander. Seriously, coriander appeared on almost every single dish. The stuff must be growing like weeds in Granger’s backyard.

Second – doesn’t the way the the dish is described on the menu give the impression that all these delicious ingredients would be mixed together and fried with the brown rice? That’s what we thought too, so we were really surprised to see the dish come out with the kimchi served mainly on the side (covered by the giant heap of coriander in the photo).

The rice tasted like run-of-the-mill fried rice, with vague hints of chilli, crab and chorizo… and almost none of the spicy fermented cabbage flavor you should be getting from kimchi fried rice.

The kimchi on the side tasted just like … regular kimchi. Thinking about it, it’s pretty arrogant for a Western restaurant to boast “house made” kimchi on the menu, when there is perfectly fresh, perfectly delicious kimchi available from Korean grocers everywhere. Like, if you’re going to take advantage of the Korean food-trend by including a kimchi dish on your menu, it would be nice if you supported Korean producers and small businesses by using their high-quality, authentic products.

The yellow egg ribbons, I think, were meant to be a play on the fried egg you usually get on top of your kimchi fried rice, or the thin sheet of scrambled eggs that sometimes covers the whole plate omurice-style. But even egg could not save this sad, bland imitation of kimchi bokkumbap.

One disappointment led to another when I excitedly asked for the ricotta hotcakes for dessert and the waitress informed me that they had run out.

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Erm. There are a few things I don’t quite understand about “running out” of ricotta hotcakes.

1. They are your signature dish. I don’t care if it’s dinnertime; it’s on your dessert menu, if you consider yourself a professional establishment you should have BUCKETS of ricotta in your cool room to deal with demand.

2. Even if you run out of ricotta… just send one of the kitchen hands down to the freaking Thomas Dux and buy some more!!!! Do you not realise that 90% of the people who walk through your doors are only there for the ricotta hotcakes?

3. THEY’RE PANCAKES FOR GOODNESS SAKE. This is not the type of thing you should run out of. A rare vintage wine, I understand. A whole suckling pig, also understand. Pancakes? No. Pancakes are something that you can still make even when you’re dirt broke and have less than five things in your fridge.

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So here are the desserts we got instead of Bill Granger’s famous ricotta hotcakes.

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Strawberry pavlova with yoghurt cream.

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Chocolate pudding.

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Some berry mousse thing.

All pleasant. All unspectacular. All NOT ricotta hotcakes.

Putting the hotcakes debacle to one side, Bills is quite a nice place to have dinner with friends. It’s quiet and comfortable, and the food is well-made and uncontroversial, in that there is something to please everyone.

The kimchi fried rice is still on the menu but please, don’t bother with it. Buy a small bag of kimchi from your Korean grocer and follow any one of these recipes and you’ll be better off.

Bills 
359 Crown St 
Surry Hills, NSW

Bills on Urbanspoon

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