Choice nibbles attracting dinner crowd looking to pair several dishes with drinks
The charms of tapas ― or in Korean, of anju ― run beyond the delightful, varied array of dishes diners chow down on while tipping back their poison of choice.
They extend to the company gathered around the table, to the many conversations shared over clinking glasses and the savored bites in between.
Perhaps that is why Korean anju is so deeply embedded in the nation’s dining culture.
Running in abundance everywhere, anju can be found at tented pojangmacha or, more recently, at chic makgeolli bars.
The popularity of anju does not end there.
Japanese izakaya can be just as easily found here and there, and an increasing number of Spanish and Italian tapas places are popping up throughout the city.
“I really needed a casual place where I could just order a couple of anju and a bottle of wine, but it was hard to find a place like that,” Tapas Gourmet owner Kim Na-jung, 29, said while explaining why she decided to open a restaurant devoted to Spanish tapas.
Tapas Gourmet’s brie cheese-and-leek and escalivada-and-black olive canape-like montaditos (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Heral)
While Kim hesitates to say that Spanish-style tapas have found firm footing in South Korea, she has noticed an increase in the number of patrons.
A little over a year ago, when she opened her establishment in Tongin-dong, customers came expecting a full meal. Some even came and asked for pasta. Then, about seven months into business, that slowly changed a bit. More customers came for nibbles and drinks.
“I think people are looking for something new,” she said. “Also, people who like wine are most likely looking for anju to pair it with.”
The culture of anju itself seems blurry at best. Sometimes it can function as a main meal. Sometimes it is a late night snack at the end of a series of bar hopping. It depends on the crowd, the mood and the scene.
What seems to be a universal truth, however, is that anju and tapas are a great way for several people to get together and bond.
In an era where social networking has shot off into cyberspace, it is all too easy for people to spend less time interacting in person and more time doing it through a smartphone or computer.
Yet, when it comes to dining, and, especially anju, it looks like people are still eager to meet up and indulge in some communal grub, perhaps, even more so than before.
Take Nisiki for instance. An udon place by day and an izakaya by night, the Japanese restaurant did not start getting their tapas into heavy rotation at suppertime until 2010.
“It took a year for people to start to have anju for dinner,” said Nisiki CEO Pyo Jung-min, 48, who opened her establishment in 2009.
When Pyo opened Nisiki in Hannam-dong nearly three years ago, customers would usually just order udon for dinner. Now, customers are pairing light dishes with beer and then finishing it off with bowls of noodles.
At Kim’s Tapas Gourmet also, it was not until more recently that some regulars began coming to order a few dishes and enjoy with it wine.
Both places say their peak and rush hours are around 7 p.m., which means that people are coming for dinner, not for a late night snack. Nisiki’s Pyo added that on Fridays and Saturdays, however, there is a turnover at 11 p.m.
Expect the restaurants to be packed, even if it is a weeknight. At Tapas Gourmet, all tables were full on both a Monday and a Tuesday night, from as early as 6 p.m. Nisiki was also brimming with customers on a weeknight.
Nisiki’s “chewy” tofu and tomato salad comes dressed in a sesame seed-based sauce. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
While Nisiki specializes in housemade sanuki udon (a decadent tangle of thick, glossy, chewy noodles in broth), the restaurant spins out equally delectable small dishes; from their cool, creamy “chewy” tofu (smooth and jiggly like jello), to their sweet, Japanese apricot-sauced eggplant. Their tempura menu features delicacies like a lotus root-and-chicken combination, where slices of root are sandwiched around the seasoned meat.
Udon broth is often used to season these dainty dishes, infusing them with a deep, rich flavor that urges you to keep dipping your chopsticks for more.
At Tapas Gourmet, even the simplest of dishes is good. At only 2,500 won, it might be easy to overlook the pan con tomate, but that would be a shame. Chewy, soft slices of baguette are slathered in decadent extra virgin olive oil and a layer of what appears to be either mashed or pureed tomato, giving a fresh, pulpy, sweet taste to each slice of bread.
Fried wands of purple eggplant are drenched in a sweet, honey-like syrup. canape-like montaditos feature everything from a melted brie-leek-balsamic reduction combo to a sherry vinegar-laced salad of eggplants, bell peppers and black olives over bread.
Fans of sunny side up eggs can indulge in the huevo roto con chorizo y patata, where mashed potatoes, bits of sausage and an egg with a runny yolk are mixed together tableside into a creamy concoction.
Those who are not fans of eggs sunny side up can opt for the Spanish omelet, which is served up fluffy and filled with chunks of potato.
By Jean Oh (email@example.com
Open from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily, closed Sundays. Tapas cost 2,500 won to 28,000 won. For more information call (02) 6014-2369. Reservations recommended.
To get there go to Gyeongbok Palace Subway Station Line 3, Exit 2. Walk straight to the second major intersection. Turn left at Jahamun-ro 9-gil. Tapas Gourmet will be to the left.
Open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. till 11 p.m. daily. Open till 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Dishes cost 5,000 won to 39,000 won. At night, udon costs 8,500 won to 15,000 won. For more information call (02) 749-0446 or visit www.nisiki.co.kr. Reservations recommended for dinnertime.
To get there go to Hangangjin Subway Station Line 6, Exit 3. Walk straight. Nisiki is on the left before Cheil Worldwide.