A Weekend in Seoul

There are cities out there in the world whose appeal lies in their timelessness. Take the quaint streets of Paris as an example. It seems like not much has changed since the Impressionists famously captured the charming cafes and cobblestone streets on their canvases. Seoul is not one of these classic cities. Seoul impresses you because of its insistence to improve and reinvent itself for the better. The Seoul I remember 20 years ago from my childhood is very different from the Seoul I visited in recent weeks.

views of seoul
views of seoul

Seoul is so fancy now, home to wealthy consumers with a discerning eye, making it a key market for many high end retailers. I was talking to the head of merchandising at online retailer Totokaelo a few months ago, and I found it very interesting that the company wanted to open their next brick-and-mortar luxury store in Seoul. I had no idea at the time that the luxury market in Korea was that big. But I’ve seen it in person while walking the streets of Apgujeong in Gangnam, where a critical mass of fashion-forward retailers with beautiful storefronts like Acne Studios, 10 Corso Como and Boon the Shop has formed.

walking around gangnam in seoul
walking around gangnam in seoul

Sometimes I am nostalgic for a simpler Korea defined by cutesy Morning Glory stationery sets and delicious street food and pastries. That part of Korea still exists, luckily, especially in areas like Myeongdong, a busy, brightly lit shopping area that’s home to a ton of cosmetics stores hawking the latest in Korean face masks, and Insadong, a neighborhood noted for its galleries, antiques and traditional architecture. 48 hours is not enough to do Seoul justice, but if you need a weekend itinerary that lets you see a bit of the old and the new, see below for some ideas.

Day 1 – We arrived in Seoul at 5 pm, weary from the 14 hour flight, but there was no time to waste, as we only had three nights in the city. We went straight to dinner at Tao Yuen, an elegant Korean Chinese restaurant at The Plaza Seoul near City Hall. Korean Chinese is a very specific hybrid cuisine that originated when the ethnic Chinese who immigrated to the country started making derivatives of northern style Chinese cuisine inspired by the flavors of their new homeland. Signature dishes include the very spicy jampong noodle soup dish, the hearty black bean noodles jjajjangmyeon (similar to the Chinese dan dan noodles), and tangsuyuk, or sweet and sour fried pork. In the States, and at the traditional delivery places in Korea, the flavors tend to be pretty strong and the food is heavy, but Tao Yuen’s refined preparation ladles away all the extra grease and extraneous sauce for a modern, cleaner take. The weekend “Harmony” meal set at 68,000 won (~$58) is a very good deal in which you get 6 courses of the highest quality that lets you try a little bit of everything. I couldn’t find any fault with this dinner, but if I had to choose, the fruit cream shrimp and the pork tangsuyuk were the standouts.

the plaza hotel
the plaza seoul
appetizer of seasoned nuts, tatsoi and pickled cucumber
appetizer of seasoned nuts, tatsoi and pickled cucumber
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an abalone and lobster salad with spicy wasabi dressing
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the famous fruit cream shrimp. fried in a cake-like batter that is sweeter and fluffier than a traditional tempura
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assorted stir-fried seafood in a savory sauce
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pork tangsuyuk with strawberries

We walked off our dinner by wandering around Myeongdong, which was packed with late night revelers noshing on different snacks. If you’re ever craving popular snacks like hotteok (sweet pancakes), ddeok bukki (spicy rice cakes) or fish-shaped bungeoppang bread filled with red bean, this is the place to get it. You can also ride the wave of K-cosmetic popularity and stock up on a year’s supply of face masks at one of the many cosmetic shops lining the street. There are literally dozens of storefronts, and oftentimes the same brand will have 2 or 3 outlets. I don’t know how they all stay in business, but the oversupply is keeping face mask prices low, which is a boon for me.

Day 2 – We woke up at 5 am thanks to the joys of jet lag, so after working out at the old man Korean gym at The Plaza Seoul, we worked up an appetite and wanted something savory and hearty. Apparently Myeongdong is home to many specialty porridge shops, and that fit the criteria of what we wanted to eat, so we made our way to Migabon for breakfast. I like how each Asian culture has its own style of congee. The Chinese version is more watery and soupier, whereas the Korean and Japanese ones are starchier and stickier. The porridge at Migabon was excellent and was by the far the best Korean-style porridge that I’ve ever had. I would highly recommend the chicken and ginger for something more filling, or the crab meat if you want something on the lighter side. For some reason, they offer male customers free porridge refills, which I found a little strange and possibly sexist, but I profited off of it somehow so I couldn’t complain.

migabon in myeongdong
migabon in myeongdong
the crab congee
the crab congee

No trip to Korea is complete without a shopping trip to Gangnam, the posh area made famous by Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video. Apgujeong is an area of Gangnam that is equivalent to Madison Avenue in New York or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It’s a luxury shopper’s paradise, and you can find everything from classic high-end retailers like Cartier or more forward thinking specialty boutiques and brands like 10 Corso Como or Rick Owens.

10 corso como
10 corso como
acne studios, designed by sophie hicks
acne studios, designed by sophie hicks
boon the shop
boon the shop
rare market
rare market

Most of it was out of my price range, but I could afford a fancy Korean meal at Yeon Ha Deung. I grew up eating Korean food that was made by mothers and grandmothers, and so of course that style of cooking was very homey, with the seasonings being on the stronger side. It never occurred to me that Korean cooking could be sophisticated and restrained, and just as visually stunning as what could be presented in a Western restaurant, which is the style at Yeon Ha Deung. We were seated in our own private room salon, which added to the luxurious atmosphere, and the service was actually very good and on point. The weekend lunch set at 38,000 won (~$32) gets you the most bang for your buck–5 small courses, banchan, a main (we chose the delicious bo ssam and the steak) and a refreshing bowl of naengmyun noodles at the end. For the full Yeon Ha Deung write-up, click here.

seasonal salad presented in a beautiful globe
a raw fish in its beautiful fish bowl
sous-vide pork belly and bossam kimchi
sous-vide pork belly and bossam kimchi
steak
grilled ground beef steak
pyeong-yang style cold naengmyun noodles
pyeong-yang style cold naengmyun noodles

We were ready to do some more window shopping. One store that particularly caught our eye was Queen Mama Market, a high end lifestyle retailing concept that sells everything from clothing, gardening tools, home furnishings and coffee. It’s stores like these that give me hope that brick and mortar retail isn’t dead. Everything was so carefully curated and interesting and beautifully arranged, and I truly felt that a purchase there would be an essential addition to making my life more stylish. I didn’t want to leave, and the coffee shop on the top floor with a roof deck makes it very easy to do so.

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entrance to queen mama market
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the ground floor, for those with a green thumb
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the coffee shop on the top floor
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the view from above

Seoul isn’t all fancy Gangnam style. No trip would be complete without getting your hands a little dirty eating some Korean bbq. There are nice chains like Sam Won Garden that provide a very comfortable bbq experience, but for something with more character, you should venture out a bit, take the Bundang subway line to the Seoul Forest station exit and walk towards a block crammed with pork bbq restaurants at every turn. It’s a very modest and diy affair, and it’s a little chaotic trying to cook your meat in the outdoors with windy conditions and such, but the fun, block party feel more than makes up for it.

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hanging out, cooking your pork kalbi
cooking our meats
our pork meats
the side dishes for our kalbi dinner
the side dishes, which are essential

We took a late evening stroll through Insadong, a neighborhood known for its traditional store fronts selling ceramics and artwork. Our visit coincided with Buddha’s birthday, so many parts of the street were blocked off for the festivities that were taking place in the area. There were people dancing and singing on a large stage, a scene that reminded me of those old live concerts I used to watch on KBS. The Jogyesa temple, which is the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, a very influential religious group in the country, was decorated in brightly lit lanterns in honor of the deity’s birthday.

festivities for buddha's birthday
festivities for buddha’s birthday
the brightly lit jogyesa temple
the jogyesa temple

There are a lot of tea shops in Insadong, and a famous one is O’Sulloc Tea House, which sells green tea grown and harvested in Cheju Island. You can buy the teas in the retail store, and upstairs in the cafe you can enjoy green tea treats like ice cream and pastries. The green tea ice cream here is very strong and especially bitter, and as if there weren’t enough tea in the ice cream already, you get to drizzle some more green tea syrup on top of it.

the green tea ice cream at o'sulloc
the green tea ice cream at o’sulloc

Our very short trip to Seoul was coming to an end. To extend our stay a little longer, we woke up early the next morning to have our last meal at Sinseon, which makes seulongtang oxtail soup in Myeongdong. It was a clean broth without the notorious film of cloudy fat that these soups are known for, and it came pre-seasoned with salt and scallions, an unusual move as the old school places typically let you season to taste. We were full and ready to hibernate on the 12 hour flight back. Who knows if any of these places will still be around the next time I’m back. Seoul keeps getting younger and newer with time.

sinseon seulongtang
sinseon seulongtang
jumbo mandoo dumplings
jumbo mandoo dumplings


Myeongdong Area
Taoyuen at The Plaza Seoul (Central Business District)
119 Sogong-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul 04525, South Korea

Migabon and Sinseon (in the same building)
1F and 2F 2-23, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Insadong Area
O’Sulloc Tea House
170 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu
, Seoul, South Korea

Jogyesa Temple
55 Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Gangnam Area
Yeon Ha Deung Restaurant
33 Seollung-ro 152-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
02-514-0922

Queen Mama Market
50 Apgujeong-ro 46-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Acne Studios
27-2 Seollung-ro 162 Gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Boon the Shop
17 Apgujeong-ro 60-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

10 Corso Como
416 Apgujeong-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Space Mue
93-6 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Rare Market
95-5 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Pork restaurant area
Take the Bundang Line and get off at Seoul Forest station. The phonetic translation of the restaurant we went to is Neul Bom Galbi

 

Yeon Ha Deung, Fine Korean Dining in Seoul

High end Korean food is counterintuitive to the type of Korean food I grew up with. I would eat the food that my mom made me, or the meals that the church ladies would prepare every Sunday. The flavors in this type of homestyle prep are strong. The kimchee is intense, the mung bean daenjang is even more so. You can usually smell Korean food from a mile away, and when you see all the bright red and orange flavors on your plate, you know exactly what you’re in for.

loved the blue and gold place settings
loved the blue and gold place settings

Which is why I initially was violently opposed to restaurants that specialized in high-end Korean cooking. Korean food should be homey and inexpensive and a little messy to look at. Those were the signs that made it authentic, because that’s how my mom made it. But the trends in Korea are changing. The younger generation doesn’t always want to eat intensely marinated things all the time. They like cleaner, lighter flavors. And the whole foodie culture is big in Korea, so it makes sense that Koreans would adopt a modern, inventive approach to their own food.

On a recent trip to Korea, I had lunch at Yeon Ha Deung in Gangnam, and I was blown away by how good Korean fine dining could be. First of all, the space itself is beautiful. You feel like you’re entering an exclusive salon, and each party gets its own private room, so the luxurious tone is set from the very beginning. The service is also so much better, an improvement from the places in Ktown where the ajoomas can make you feel like the smallest person on earth. And most importantly, the refined and restrained cooking style is eye-opening. If we’re open to high-end and fast casual burger joints (Minetta Tavern $32 Black Label Burger vs. Shake Shack), then why not do the same for Korean food? There’s room for both the fancy and the humble.

the seasonal porridge and salad
the seasonal porridge and salad
the flatfish salad
the flatfish salad
fried tempura pieces
fried tempura pieces

The weekend lunch set menu here is a very good deal at 38,000 won (~$32). It comes with 5 courses, ban chan side dishes, a bowl of naengmyun noodles and dessert. Everything was so beautiful and delicate, and the progression of flavors from the mild to the strong was a gradual progression. The first course was a very light and mild soup, followed by a salad in bright yuzu dressing, and then a stunning presentation of raw fish “swimming” inside a culinary fish bowl.

sous-vide pork belly and bossam kimchi
sous-vide pork belly and bossam kimchi
steak
steak

For our mains, we had the pork bo ssam and the grilled steak. Bo ssam is usually a hearty affair, and restaurants in the States play that up with huge plates of fat slabs of pork belly ready for you to dig into. You get fewer pieces here, but the impact is no less. The payoff is even bigger with the ground beef steak, which was my favorite course. Koreans really know how to treat their meat.

pyeong-yang style cold naengmyun noodles
pyeong-yang style cold naengmyun noodles

The naengmyun was so refreshing. I usually don’t like naenmyun in the States, as I find that the broth tastes too much like cucumbers and brine, but the naengmyun at Yeon Ha Deung went down quite easy. What I loved even more was that I wasn’t stuffed and paranoid that my breath smelled like garlic, because, let’s be honest, sometimes a Korean meal leaves you in that kind of a state. I might have to shell out a few more bucks for the experience, but it’s worth the money.


Yeon Ha Deung Restaurant
33, Seolleung-ro 152-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea, 06016
02-514-0922