Sunday, June 9, 2024

Strong Contender

Work brought me to Seoul for a few days in January and I did find time to check out a few restaurants on my free time. I was quite looking forward to the trip because it's literally been decades since I last set foot in Korea, but then I wasn't as excited when I knew Korea is freezingly cold at this time of year. (one morning the temperature changed from -6C the previous day to -2C and they called this warm - go figure)

Dinner at Born & Bred was one of the most anticipated meal of the trip because I heard so many good things about it from my foodie friends. I actually moved my eating itinerary a little so I could eat there on the only evening they had a spot available at the legendary basement with special tasting menu served to only a handful diners over counter seatings. 

The restaurant was a bit off the beaten track, located in Majang a.k.a. Seoul's "Meat Packing District" with many butcher-houses in this neighborhood is located in the eastern fringe of the city. The standalone 3-level building was hard to miss, prominently located at a street corner with a fancy metallic facade in stark contrast to just about everything else in that block. Through the little entrance on the side I was led into the cozy dining area downstairs where my feast took place. They really have a speakeasy vibe to the place, with half a dozen comfy leather seats placed around a horse-shoe shaped open kitchen in an intimate space finished with dark and metallic decor resembling a classic American steakhouse or someone's secret basement hideaway.

Soon after all six of us arrived and settled at our seats. "Today you will be served around 500-600g of hanwoo beef over around 20 courses - if at the end you would like more food feel free to ask for more...," our young chef of the night began by carefully explaining the rundown for the evening. That did sound like a decent amount of meat (about 18-21 ounces in traditional steak terms) but then I told myself that's still manageable (given I already skipped my lunch). Well, little did I know... 

I would describe my experience for the next 2 hours as one of the most memorable and nothing short of spectacular - I had hanwoo before but those were nothing compared to what I was served this time. The sheer amount of food was just the beginning - I swear they hugely under-represented and I felt like I had a ton of meat and double the number of courses they said to be serving. And every dish was presented to us in such detailed explanations often before they were cooked right in front of us, both in terms of the cut used and how they would be prepared, and I am impressed by the variety of both. 

We started with a few courses in small(er) portion, including the beef broth with stuffed morel then yokhoe served beef tartare style with minari (water parsley) and caviar garnishes on a dehydrated bone marrow chip. The whole beef ham was presented to us before sliced by the classic slicer machine and served with strawberries and a touch of vanilla oil. The ham has an intense flavor and a touch of nuttiness, and that paired well with the ripe strawberries.

While the appetizers were served, a pair of meat courses were being prepared in the traditional charcoal grill - first the tenderloin with shaved fresh truffles, then the striploin with a dab of yuzu mustard. Some cabbage kimchi was served on the side then the cold meongge (sea pineapples) was served as palate cleanser. Chef explained the meongge is a common street snack loved by the butchers to be had with soju shots during their break.

We then continued with countless more grilled beef courses. The thick slices of oyster blade (aka flat iron) were so good with perfect texture - the piece was grilled in high heat, than flash-cooled by ice, and then placed on the grill again, and this ancient "fire and ice" approach was said to tenderize the meat (well, ice came handy in winter around the region, in case you wonder) There's also the tri-tip, or the skirt, the "chain" of tenderloin and skirt, or the "lesser" cut such as hanger steak or the outside skirt (called the "butchers cut" because of the rich flavor)  Each of the courses were prepared slightly differently and different condiments were used too - the skirt went with burdock kimchi and gojujang, the tenderloin chain with soy sauce and fried garlic, the tri-tip done with truffle dressing, and some just a simple dab of salt, etc etc.

I was introduced to a new dish called saseul jeok, the traditional Korean version of "surf n turf" with slices of cod fillet and finger rib beef placed in alternate order in hanji (traditional Korean paper), cooked en papillote style with soybean paste on top, and served after finishing with blow-torch. Two seemingly different ingredients worked surprisingly well with the hint of sweetness from the marinate used. Next was jeolliptu, or helmet hotpot, for which thin slices of beef plate was grilled than boiled with vegetables in a special helmet-shaped cast iron pot, with the broth served in small cup to us. 

Bulgogi and Banchan was the start of the long series of finale courses. Upper loin meat was cut paper thin and grilled on the metal hot plate and served with small plates of pickled and fermented seafood, plus rice and lettuce/condiments to roll the meat with. Burger and Pho were the famous final dishes at this speakeasy and they were super delicious. A quarter of the burger was just the perfect size for tasting. 

My jaw was dropped when chef brought out even more food, saying these are the special off-menu ones just for tonight. I was so stuffed by then and felt one more bite I was going to throw, literally. But I soldiered on and enjoyed the next two "encore" courses, which were the grilled chuck flap and Jappakuri (stir-fried two kinds of instant noodles) made famous by the movie Parasite. There's a sense of accomplishment as I wiped the plates clean. 

I carried my own bottle of wine in specifically for the meal, partly because I thought this bottle suited the food they served and mainly because imported wines in Korea are prohibitively expensive. The Barbaresco was fruit-driven with plenty of red fruits, but also some cedar, herbal aroma. Young but was given time to age and develop. I love the rounded tannins which went well with the subtly sweet flavor often used as the marinate for the meat. 

I know this is only January but I am sure my dinner at Born & Bred will surely be a strong contender to be my Meal of 2024. Without a doubt this is a must-stop for anything coming to Seoul, well of course unless you don't eat beef. 

A lot more photos here:

When? January 15 2024
Where? Born & Bred, 1 Majang-ro 42-gil, Seongdong-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Menu Highlights? Just about everything
Drinks? 2018 Sottimano "Cotta" Barbaresco DOCG

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