The Seoul Journal

This will be hard to fit in one post, but here goes. For the past three and a half days, we have been in South Korea. Seoul to be exact. You might think that that’s a short time to visit a city, but it is often sufficient for us to have a break. It’s the long flights that are offsetting. However, once a year, we are lucky enough to fly long haul in first class – with airline points of course. But the first-class experience is not the topic (I can write someday about that too), I aim to summarize our four day food extravaganza: low and highlights. There are not many disappointments though (except for the Aseana first class lounge), but a list of great recommendations for a foody holiday in the capital of South Korea, Seoul.

To make this easy, I will divide the reviews to three categories: dining, drinks and coffee. We didn’t see many sights, but you can get a taste for the street life from the photos. I will start with the most obvious one, food.

Dining

In the beginning of the trip we set a goal to taste all well known Korean dishes: Bibimbap, Bulgogi, Korean BBQ and fried chicken. In addition, we planned a trip to the food market, to try some street food, and booked lunches at two Michelin starred restaurants: Mingles (*) and Jungsik (**). After being acquainted with a local Korean rice wine called Makgeolli, we made a third booking, for dinner at restaurant said to have one of the best selection of local wines in town, Mr. Ahns.

For the local delicacies, we went as low key as possible. Places that the locals would go to, on a weeknight. The only touristy place was Gogung, where we had the Bibimbap and Bulgogi. It was a tourist restaurant, but with low prices and a good display of local cooking. It was conveniently located in the shopping area of Myeong-Dong, and we were a bit short on time. For the Korean BBQ we went to Mapo Sutpul Galbi in Gangnam. A simple place with high quality meat. Maple Tree House, a chain, was our second option, but we opted for the one that was on our way. Fried chicken was available almost everywhere. It was so addictive that we had it several times. Accompanied by beer of course – preferably a cheap light lager (Hite).

For the finer restaurants, I really only want to talk about one place – Mr. Ahn’s. Migles and Jungsik, were both ok, but not that high in their class. At Mingles we also had some issues with the payment. They required a weird Paypal deposit for booking, and returning it was a drag as we had booked the restaurant via a concierge. In the end the starred chef himself came out and guaranteed we would get our deposit back. I am sure they solved it the best way possible, but it still resulted in irritation. Jungsik was much more up to standards, but I would not rank it in my top five, not even my top ten restaurants in the world (am I getting spoiled?).

Mr. Ahn’s was a totally different story. We booked a table to be able to go and taste Makgeolli, traditional Korean rice wine, which we hear has become popular among young people. It’s a thick, grainy liquid that has a bit of sweetness; the taste is quite soft and non-intimidating. Makgeolli is low on alcohol, so it is quite easy drinking. I will actually research this a bit more and write a whole separate post on this new obsession. The restaurant itself was very small. Hard to find, even for the locals, as it was very minimalist and had no sign. Everything was in Korean, but luckily the waiter spoke decent English. We ordered some nice sounding appetizers, two mains and a dessert, with expectations of getting our tummies full, but we never expected Mr. Ahn’s to be a foody paradise. The dishes were innovative, well presented and could be characterized as an explosion of tastes. The cuisine was Korean but combined with some modern European ideas. We both agreed that this was the best food experience the whole week, one that we will remember for some time.

Cocktails

To the drinks section then. Many know that I am fond of speakeasies, secret bars that require some insight information and a skilled eye. They are not that hard to find, ever, but great fun, and often the cocktails are also pretty good. A speakeasy must have something more than a cellar-like ambiance, people need to be motivated somehow to look for them. And on our list, we had four that we wanted to visit: Alice, Le Chamber, Twelve and Charles H. All of the bars were good in their own way: Alice was quirky, with an Alice in Wonderland theme. It is located in the back of an underground flower shop, and definitely had the most innovative drinks we had seen in a long time. The presentation was part of the fun. Sadly, the lighting was too poor to take proper photos, and usually the bar staff frown upon a flash.

The best cocktails, in taste, were served at Le Chamber. This one also has the most fun entrance as the door is behind a bookshelf. You need to press the right book to get in and the staff will not tell you which one it is (neither will I, I am sure you will find it). Le chamber was not as big on presentation of drinks but did the best job with taste. From le Chamber we also got a tip to go to Charles D.

Charled D. was the hardest of all to find. It was said to be located in the cellar floor of the Four Seasons hotel, through a very discreet door that looked like a maintenance closet. Or it should have been hard to find, the hotel staff were too generous with tips and we picked the right door straight away. A bit boring If you ask me. Charles D. was the biggest and clubbiest of all the speakeasies and offered the most comprehensive list of cocktails. There were styles and tastes from around the world: New York, Havana and Hong Kong. You could also do some interesting flights, like the Manhattan trio, with three different styles of mini Manhattans. The presentation of the cocktails was not comparable to Alice, but the tastes were supreme and service rocking.

Twelve was perhaps the most boring of the places we visited (cocktail fatigue), but it had some nice features. They did not have any kitchen, but you could order your own food there, which was a big plus. Cocktails were mainly whisky-based, so for friends of Bourbon, this is a paradise.

Coffee

And finally, coffee. I don’t even know where to start. Seoul is full of great coffee places. Actually, you cannot avoid running into a Chemex or V60 when you are out and about. Not all places are good, but they try. M could perhaps elaborate more, as he toured coffee places while I took photos. But my top coffee shop was Fritz Coffee and Bread in Gangnam. Their Kenyan cold brew was awesome, and I really liked the looks of the baked goods: bread and pastries. Perhaps good to mention that in Korea, it is always advised to state if you are having you coffee hot or cold. Cold seems to be the norm there.

And here ends my lengthy list of recommendations for Seoul. We were perhaps a bit lucky this time, but luck is only a part of it as M always does quite extensive research on where to go. Hope you enjoy the pictures!

xx Soile

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Yukhoe tartar at Buchon Yukhoe
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In the tunnels of Gwangjang market, where we just stumbled on to Buchon Yukhoe
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At the Gwangjang market
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Fried chicken and beer
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Late night dumplings and Makgeolli
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Walking in Itaewon
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Dessert at Mingles
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Korean BBQ at Mapo Sutbul galbi
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The shopping street at Myeong-Dong
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Shoppers in Myeong-Dong
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Tasting Bulgogi at Gogung
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Korean girls seem to be very fond of photos of themselves
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Mother and daughter at the Ihwa Mural Village
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At Ihwa Mural Village
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Taking the steps at the mural village
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Street art at Ihwa mural village
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Gallery cafe at the hills of Ihwa
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Swimming up the stairs at Ihwa mural village
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Tasting Makgeolli at Mr Ahn’s
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Morning coffee run at Fritz
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Amuse bouche at Jungsik
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The dessert at Jungsik

Bangkok Bar Secrets

Secret bars – what do I think about them? To be honest, I am a bit torn. I don’t want to go to a bar because it is hidden, I want to go because the drinks are good. Of course its a fun concept, I don’t mind that, but sometimes it attracts a bit of an odd crowd. In Bangkok though, the best bars are hidden ones, and I dare to claim that I can now give a very competitive top-3 view. Continue reading “Bangkok Bar Secrets”

Memories from the Luggage Room – London

It is Thursday, the day of the week when I start thinking about the weekend and cocktails. I must admit, I have nothing new. Cocktails are often my second choice (if good wine is not available). However I do have some memories to share from the time I lived in London. It was a time that wine and cocktails did not single each other out, but it was rather common that one followed the other.

One of our favorite late night hangouts was the Luggage Room at the Marriot Grosvenors Square. Yes, I know, a Marriott sounds a bit boring. However, as with Punch Room (review here), the Luggage Room is not your average hotel bar. To start with it is a speakeasy. You enter the bar by knocking on a door (with the letters LR) on the side of the building. A little window slides open, true speakeasy style and you are escorted in by a well dressed host/ hostess. There is an entrance from inside the hotel as well, but it is just a pair of closed doors that in no way give away that there is a bar behind them. The Luggage Room is a rather silly name, but that is what the space used to be, the room where luggage was kept.

The bar is 20’s inspired with leather couches and fine furniture. There are initials on all of the tables and they are there after the famous Bentley Boys, a group of wealthy British motorists, who brought the Bentley brand on the world map. The staff explained that the group used to cruise around the area. The staff are also dressed accordingly to the look of the 20’s and 30’s with flap-dresses and smart bow ties. The ambiance in the Luggage Room is fancy but comfortable.

As you sit down, the host brings you a seasonal aperitif and snacks: crispy veggie chips and gourmet nuts, all served in a beautiful silver platter. Food – no better way to be greeted. The selection of drinks is also mirroring what was popular at the time: punches, swizzles, juleps and coolers. The ingredients are fresh and every drink is made with enormous care at the bar. The price tag is rather high, 12-14£. However, I at least feel that it is worth it. All the small extra snacks and spotless service is worth the extra buck. They also have some champagnes on the menu, however I am not convinced of the value for money (especially with the strong Pound). A bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvee is 95£, so I would rather invest that money into many many cocktails.

The wonderful service and good drinks are enough to convince me to visit. However there is something extra with the luggage room, and that is that it is open until 2 am. Now this might sound like nothing for us Finns and Swedes. However in Great Britain bars often close already at 11 pm. Yes, I know, it is really frustrating. But the Luggage Room is the perfect place to go for a drink after a late dinner in the center.

28 Hong Kong Street, a Well Known Secret

Time for cocktails again! I have chosen Thursdays as the day to publish my “other than wine” reviews as I think its a nice way to set the mood for the weekend. Not to say that I couldn’t have some cocktails during the week (I visited 28 Hong Kong Street on a Monday) but it is less likely than me having a glass of wine.

28 Hong Kong Street is one of the first post-Mad Men speakeasy bars in Singapore. Its been around since 2011. Even though its not a big secret and it’s relatively easy to find due to the name pointing to the exact address, it is still clearly a speakeasy. There are no signs pointing towards it, and the door is not inviting to someone just passing by. You need to go there with a purpose and preferably with a reservation. We were there on a Monday, and despite that not being the busiest day of the week they only had a few tables available.

The service was first class from the start. We were shown to our table and the waiter explained the menu of the night. There was a “visiting” bartender behind the counter and he was making some of his own specials. The fun names of the cocktails and eccentric mixes caught our eye, this is not the place to order “just a basic Mojito”. I ordered a Shrub You Long Time with strawberry infused Gin (Gin, what a surprise) with some orange, dry sherry and a balsamic finish. It was delicious (although M didn’t like it). M ordered the Hulk Smash, mainly because of the wonderful name, but also due to the ingredients. It was served in a “smashed” tin cup to sweeten the deal. We also had a Singapore based friend with us and he first ordered a Old fashioned liked drink and on the first sip realized he did not at all like it. Staff were however very attentive and noticed that it was perhaps not what he would preferred and they straight away offered him to exchange it for something else without any cost. Big plus for being so attentive and the great service attitude.

As I mentioned, it was a Monday, so one drink was enough. However the menu was long and inviting so I could imagine spending the whole evening here. We didn’t have any food, but I eyed the burgers passing by our table and they looked delicious. Next time, I will have something salty to match my drinks.

Flavors and Party Tricks at Bar Stories (Singapore)

Bar stories ranks perhaps as my number one cocktail bar in Singapore (maybe even the world). If you would ask M, he would prefer Longplay (review here), but I am sure this place would not be long behind.

Bar stories is located on Haji lane, a street where the Western and Middle-Eastern cultures collide. There are many bars around with tourists and expats having drinks, but also bars that serve no alcohol to respect the Arab-heritage. Bar stories is located in the upstairs of an old shop-house. Its not a speakeasy per-se, but it is not something you wonder into without knowing what it is.

Upon entering we were greeted and seated at the end of the bar. I love a seat with a view! The concept was as in Bitters & Love (review here), there is no menu, you explain to the bartender what you like and they will make you a drink. We went with our usual spirits of choice, me wit gin and M with a dark rum. We are perhaps a bit boring, but it helps compare one place to another. Also I am really not fond of whiskey, cognac or vodka as a base, so the options are limited. The bartender also asked some questions like do I like lemongrass and could I handle some egg white in my drink (YES!).It was nice to get some suggestions as I would perhaps not have thought about them myself.

I could already see from the equipment they had at hand that we were going to see some party tricks. I don’t mind as long as my drink is good. M’s cocktail arrived with a flaming branch or rosemary, and mine with a long lemongrass sticking out of the Martini glass. Looking around others had pretty cool looking drinks as well, and none of them looked the same. The staff seemed to like experimenting and you could see they were having fun with it. The taste was wonderful, like a mix of a fresh breeze and dessert (due to the creaminess of the egg white) with spices on top.

We only had one round of drinks this time, but I can imagine I could have sat there sipping on cocktails for a full evening. The ambiance was charming and relaxed and the cocktails excellent. As with many nice bars these days, it is possible to reserve a table (I remember the days in Finland when it cost something and you only got a crappy bottle of Vodka and some mixers as “compensation”). There doesn’t seem to be any food or snacks, so my recommendation would be to have dinner before going.

Bar Stories, I love you and I hope we meet again soon!