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Photo by Sam Zucker.
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Photo by Sam Zucker.
When I lived just outside of New York City, I took the sensual delights of Manhattan’s West 32nd Street (a colourful city block better known as Korea Way) for granted. I love the flavours of Korean food, and they are a scarce commodity in Barcelona. Like in Catalunya, the culture of South Korea places food and family at the top of life’s priorities, so it was with great excitement that I discovered Soban de Jo Lee, a little slice of Seoul in the depths of the Eixample Esquerra.
Soban de Jo Lee is deceiving, as the view from the street makes the restaurant appear practically deserted at all hours. But, make your way upstairs and you’re likely to find every seat of the second floor dining room filled on any given night of the week.
When confronted with a menu full of intriguing dishes, putting some of the decision-making power in the hands of your server is a blessing. Case in point—my favourite thing about eating in any traditional Korean restaurant is the banchan, which literally translates as ‘side dishes’, an assortment of mostly vegetarian, mostly cold or room-temperature starters that are included in the meal. You never know what the treasure trove of banchan will hold, but expect multiple kinds of pungent kimchi (the traditional cabbage variety as well as cucumber and daikon radish versions), crunchy mung bean sprouts, fried tofu strips scattered with sesame seeds, golden battered courgette slices, velvety roasted sweet potatoes, and always some sort of saline seaweed salad, to name a few. I often neglect to take into account how filling these little plates can be and always get up from the table at Soban de Jo Lee utterly content, but feeling as if I’m likely to explode on the metro ride home.
On my latest visit, just moments after ordering the friendly waiter ferried a massive tray of 16 banchan to our table of seven people (eight unique dishes presented on 16 little ceramic plates, all of which, along with every plate, cup, bowl, and platter in the restaurant, are handmade by the chef-owner himself in his downstairs pottery studio). We raised our little shot glasses of soju in a toast and settled in for what was shaping up to be quite a feast. Soju is a distilled beverage made from fermented rice and is the most popular alcoholic drink in South Korea. A little pricey at €14 per bottle (and at 360ml, we needed two), drinking wine or beer may have been cheaper, but way less fun.
An obvious advantage of dining in groups is that the meal gets cheaper, plus you’re able to order a variety of dishes to share (a blessing at a place like Soban de Jo Lee where the portions are quite large and even three dishes for one couple would be overkill). Dish after dish arrived trailing an aromatic breeze, and as we happily passed them around the table, my plate was quickly overflowing. We began with the obligatory Dolsot Bibimbap, a red-hot iron bowl fresh out of the oven, filled with white rice and topped with a variety of vegetables, minced beef, chilli sauce, and a raw egg that is cooked by the bowl’s residual heat as the entire contents are vigorously mixed with a fork and spoon. This dish is synonymous worldwide with Korean cuisine and, just like the socarrat of a Valencian paella, the crispy rice scraped from the bottom of metal bowl is a much sought-after final morsel.
Next, we made short work of a platter of vegetable kimbap, a Korean staple that resembles Japanese norimaki sushi rolls. As I polished off my allotment of seaweed-wrapped rounds and helped myself to a second slice of crispy hemul jon (or haemul pajeon, a popular savoury Korean pancake made with squid, various shellfish, egg, and green onion), my favourite dish of the night arrived: the Osam Bulgogi. Osam Bulgogi could be called a spicy Korean ‘surf and turf’, combining beautifully-shaved bits of luscious marinated pork belly with tender baby squid, all bathed in salty-sweet Korean chilli paste. I would probably eat anything slathered in this much of the ubiquitous bulgogi Korean barbecue sauce, but I couldn’t get enough of this addictive dish. Several more heaping platters of Korean classics followed (make sure you order the japche) and I held my own to the very end, chopsticks and shot glass in hand.
As I hunted for stray bites that had maybe escaped my companions, I caught the chef peering out from the kitchen, searching for happy faces and clean plates; we didn’t let him down. Upon seeing the empty bottles of soju on our table, the chef graciously offered us his special ginseng-infused version, kept on display on the highest shelf above the server’s station. If you think normal soju itself is strong, then maybe this ramped-up version is not for you. However, being a fan of the odd bitter dram, the ginseng soju was easy to stomach, as was the bill at just €16 per person.