What you need to know:
- The red chili shouldn’t scare you off spice lightweights because the heat and sweetness of the glaze sauce is wonderfully balanced.
- Half of food enjoyment is presentation. The other half is of course taste.
- No Korean meal is complete without side dishes or kimchi – which come free with a meal.
I was introduced to Korean cuisine in 2012 through Korean television dramas and variety shows. I have never encountered a culture where food is so central that “Have you eaten?” is usually part of a greeting.
The online reviews of Dae Jang Geum tend toward the positive side so I was excited at the prospect of actually eating the foods I had seen in my favorite Korean shows.
The restaurant is intimate with thirty-two seats, nestled in those lush gardens that once characterised the Westlands suburbs.
During the weekday, the restaurant is empty. They do not get many walk-ins so much so that the service staff is paired down to one waiter. I am told that the weekend is a different story. Being the only customer in the restaurant, the service is attentive and friendly although they could do better about managing expectations - I was told my starter would be ready in three minutes but it came thirty minutes later with the main course.
My starter is Dakgangjeong, crispy boneless chicken pieces glazed in a sweet and spicy sauce. It is truly delicious. The red chili shouldn’t scare you off spice lightweights because the heat and sweetness of the glaze sauce is wonderfully balanced. The chicken pieces are perfectly bite-size and devilishly additive. I couldn’t stop putting these in my mouth even though I was uncomfortably full from the Bibimbap.
Bibimbap, which translates to mixed rice, is one of the most well-known Korean dishes and usually features on top-ten-foods-to-eat-in-Korea lists. There are many varieties but essentially bibimbap is rice with seasoned and sauteed vegetables.
I order the Dolsot- bibimbap which is served in a hot stone pot that sizzles anything it touches and creates a layer of crisp golden-brown rice at the bottom of the bowl. There is no sizzle in my bowl or a layer of crisp golden-brown rice but the presentation is beautiful. Half of food enjoyment is presentation. The other half is of course taste. If not for the gochujang sauce, the bibimbap would have been perfectly average so I heartily recommend mixing it into the bowl. It’s what makes the dish memorable. Although made from Korean red chili, the spice is not oppressive; it raises the body temperature without the unpleasant burning sensation around the lips.
No Korean meal is complete without side dishes or kimchi – which come free with a meal. I get kimchi – salted and fermented cabbage, musaengchae – shredded radish kimchi and gamjajeon - potato fritters. Kimchi is one of those foods you either like or don’t like. It has a distinct smell and taste that can be off-putting to some people. The radish kimchi is a good alternative. It isn’t as pungent as the cabbage kimchi and it has a hint of sweetness.
The generosity associated with Korean meal times is well represented. You will not leave less than full.