My last meal in Korea for a while was with friends. Bulgogi? I said, sure, I like bulgogi usually for the sides more than the meat itself. But we were all surprised by what we found at Woo Sa Mi Restaurant. Right across from the front of Seoul’s City Air Terminal, this basement restaurant is in the same building as Mano de Chef, a more visible (and readable) sign on the corner of the building.
We came down the stairs and at first it seemed like we were walking into the back of the kitchen. But to either side were two modest dining areas. A few “normal” tables with chairs, and more traditional mats surrounding tables but set up with a space for your feet so you could sit like in a chair if you preferred. We took a regular table and ordered bulgogi for three.
First, we were brought an appetizer of fried beef strips with a lemony dipping oil. A meat primer, if you will. A hint of what was to come.
The host came over and you could tell right away he was the owner, but also that something special was going on here. The more he served us, the more I asked questions via my friends’ Korean, the more animated and excited he became. He served us himself, not uncommon in places like this, but he wasn’t serving anyone else. His name is Yu Min Su and he told us he is a chef and has won awards for his traditional Korean cooking.
What we had just ordered, he informed us, was not the typical bulgogi, but a truly Seoul-style form of it. Neither of my friends, Mina and Hyunseok had eaten it before either. A server brought out a large bowl full of bright red ground and seasoned beef. I’d guess we were looking at about 1.5 kilos/3 pounds or so. It seemed to me an absurd amount of meat.
To add to the insanity, I saw a yukhoe (sounds like U K or yuke way, depending on who you ask) photo on the wall and I ordered that too.
This is a dish of raw, cold strips of tender beef mixed with sesame oil, salt, raw garlic, pine nuts, and a bit of sugar. (Sometimes a raw egg as well, but not tonight.) It’s often still just ever so slightly frozen. It’s good, but again we had a big mound of it.
But the main attraction was Seoul style bulgogi. We cooked it on a copper grill dome with a sort of moat around it. The waiter fills this with a plain broth and some veggies and mushrooms, and then all the meat drippings throughout the course of the meal flow into that broth. Damn good.
Mr. Yu started cooking the bulgogi for us. Later, Mina took over and served. Because I am “old,” I don’t have to do much at the table. Korean tradition.
The proper way to eat the bulgogi was to cook it like a little oblong burger patty, then eat it with a bit of spicy radish kimchi and a dab of red bean paste.
Unlike many other bulgogi meals I’ve had – with the endless array of refillable side dishes of kimchi and a variety of salads and vegetables that my Korean compatriots don’t always even know the name for – this one was for the hardcore carnivore. And we each had more than a pound to pack away. That bit of radish, Mr. Yu told us, was good for digestion. I guess I’d be testing that theory later tonight.
Mr. Yu came over to check on us again and was just squirming with glee. When I told Hunseok to translate that this was the best yookay I had ever had and that I loved the bulgogi, his face lit up and he gestured with both fists as if to say “Score!” It was pretty endearing. “Cute,” said both Mina and Hyunseok.
The water alternative for the night was to be bokbunjajoo, of course, the black raspberry wine of the gods that I often pack bottles of into my suitcase each trip. And you can’t seem to get away from this guy in Korea. Here is Psy touting soju and beer, Gangnam style.
Kevin vs. all the beef in Seoul; Kevin wins with team assistance. We ate all that meat. An appalling display of bloody consumption. When we went to pay, Mr. Yu grabbed all the after-dinner candies out of the bowl by the register with both hands, and handed them to Mina like we had produced a weapon and said Give us all your large bills or we blow this bulgogi joint. He nearly giggled with delight and I started to wonder what celebrity he had mistaken me for. (Westerners all look the same.)
Could all this excitement really just be for the presence of a foreigner in his restaurant or was I being mistaken for Dr. House? Was he thinking he’d score big on TripAdvisor or Yelp?
Well, one thing’s for sure: he’s got my wholehearted recommendation for anyone headed to Seoul.
Woo Sa Mi Restaurant also serves some soups, noodles, steamed calamari, and some other dishes. The total for the 3 of us including 3 servings, yuhoe and a bottle of bokbunjajoo was 69,000 won.