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Monday, April 17, 2017

First published in the Coastal Courier Newspaper July 2015

Last week, I got the hankering for some Chinese food, but instead opted to try something slightly different. So I stopped in at Seoul Restaurant, Fine Korean Dining.

Honestly I didn’t know what to expect because my only experience with Korean food had been watching Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain talk about and consume it on Food Network and Travel Channel.

The two TV foodies visited many places featuring Korean food that was typically spicy, with lots of specialty soups and noodles. Everywhere they went, the popular side dish, kimchi, was served as well as a variety of other side plates.

I’m always down for something spicy. But kimchi? Fermented food?
When the word fermented is used my thought goes straight to two things; (1) heck yeah, they are making beer or wine, and I know it’s five o’clock somewhere; (2) oh heck no, they’re letting my food rot and grow bacteria. The fear with the latter is that I would pay the price the next day.

Looking for a new dining thrill, I ventured into the restaurant.
I looked over the menu. I noticed they had those noodle soups Bourdain and Zimmern raved about.
“Cool beans,” I thought. “Time for some spicy ramen noodle soup thingy.”

The waitress came by, and I asked about the seafood soup.
“No seafood soup today,” the woman said.
I swear, for a brief second, she sounded like the infamous Soup Nazi from the former popular TV show, “Seinfeld.” At least that is how I heard her in my head. I panicked. I recalled how badly things ended for Elaine in that episode. I looked down at the menu and picked another soup.
“OK, how about the chicken ramen soup?” I asked half smiling, half ready to cry.

“No ramen, no soup, not today,” she said.
I looked over at my co-worker, who had joined me for the experience, and she looked just as wide-eyed as I did.

“Soups are special orders, you have to call ahead to order,” the waitress explained.
Happy that I could, eventually, try the seafood soup (take that, Elaine!), I fumbled through the menu and ordered the Tak Go Gi (chicken with fried rice and fired dumplings). My co-worker ordered the Bul Go Gi (beef with fried rice and fried dumplings).
When lunch was served I looked over to my co-worker’s plate. The beef was coated with a bright red chili paste.

“That’s going to be hot,” I said. My order looked delicious with sliced chicken in a spicy sauce, two fried dumplings and fried rice. Along with the dish came the side plates, what they call banchan, of regular kimchi, cucumber kimchi (normally called Oi Sobagi) and fish cakes (Eomuk Bokkeum).
“What’ this?” I asked pointing at what the waitress said was fish cakes.

“We puree the fish, make into paste, ferment it … season … try it,” she said.
Reluctantly, I reached for a fish cake and gave it a try.
“That’s amazing,” I told my co-worker. “If the rest of the meal tastes as good as this, I may never go back to work.”
The rest of the meal was divine — yet spicy. I looked over to my co-worker and saw she had beads of sweat on her forehead.
“Hot, but it’s so good,” I said in between the sniffles to clear my sinuses. She let me sample her spicy beef dish.

“That’s even hotter than mine,” I said, noticing that the red chili paste had stained my chop sticks and was probably doing the same to my lips and mouth.
“Happy-happy-joy-joy, happy-happy-joy-joy,” I sang quietly to myself, remembering the funny little tune from Nickelodeon’s “The Ren and Stimpy Show” cartoon years ago.

I was content. It was definitely a new taste experience unlike any Chinese or Asian meal I’ve had before. Later, the waitress explained that everything is cooked to order. The seafood soup I had asked for was a specialty item that required one day advance notice to make. She said the cook needed the extra time to prepare the soup the proper way and with freshly gathered seafood.

Anything that took that much care and attention was something I had to try. A few days later I went back and ordered “the soup,” (Jjam Bbong, yeah I am not even going to try and pronounce now or ever).

“I didn’t place the noodles in the soup because it would expand too much,” the cook, a thin but strong-looking woman, said as she stepped out from the kitchen the next day. “You take this, place some noodles in bowl, pour soup over it and hope you enjoy it. You come back, you let me know.”

Along with the soup, they threw in some pickled fruit, kimchi and the cucumber kimchi as side items. One order was enough for three people, and I had placed two orders to share at work.

I followed the instructions and placed some noodles in my bowl and opened the soup. The aroma was intense, briny and spicy, and the broth was a bright orange-red. I could smell the shrimp and mussels and tons of vegetables. As I ladled my soup into the bowl, I squealed with joy — octopus!

“Noodles, yum,” I thought and then — slurp!
“Must have more,” I thought to myself, lifting the bowl up to my lips and slurping the broth down, too.

The heat was on point. It’s the kind of spicy flavor that stays with you but doesn’t have the overkill of detracting from the rest of the flavors. I could taste each component of the soup.

Alas, most of the news crew was out of the office.
“Muahahaha — no soup for them,” I thought to myself, quickly hoarding the soup and feasting on it for dinner for the remainder of the week at home.

About Seoul Korean Fine Dining

• Located at 844 E.G. Miles Parkway, the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The staff does take a lunch break between 3 and 5 p.m., so the diner will be closed during their break.

Bring your patience. Each meal is cooked to order, so don’t expect to be served as quickly as you would in a fast-food establishment. Their meals are well worth the wait.

They have lunch specials that are budget-friendly and filling. Certain items are available with advance notice only. The waitress is extremely helpful in explaining menu items.

Don’t judge the place by the outside appearance.

Seoul Restaurant has served customers in Hinesville since it opened in 1982. The food — and staff — is definitely the reason people keep coming back.

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