This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
Oh look, it’s the Special Forces boys!
Well, I didn’t think it was that easy to get your attention, ladies. Seorae, on the other hand, knows exactly how this works. A TV screen outside replays the scene of South Korea’s impossibly beautiful soldiers pigging out in one of their restaurants; there’s a life-size poster of that iconic shoe-wearing (shoe-removing?) pose at the entrance.
Yes, they are featured in Descendants of the Sun; I just thought you’d like to know. But what I really took away from watching the scene is the possible reason why I don’t enjoy Korean BBQ that much – it’s because in Singapore we often miss out half the fun. A session at the galbi joint isn’t only about food – it’s about the conversation, and sufficient amounts of alcohol to knock out a commando in the morning.
Well, here’s the place then. Alcohol is quick to come to the table – chilled watermelon soju, with enough of the juice in it to warm the insides. Add that to several flavours and colours of cocktail, containing murky, relatively mild makgeolli and there’s plenty to lubricate the meal. Perhaps the most memorable one is the pink one, which has the deeper, more rounded flavour of real strawberries.
As for the cooking, Seorae keeps it simple: a bucket of charcoal under a brass net. Cooking time is reckoned in seconds; instructions on the menu instruct diners to constantly turn and flip the meat so it doesn’t burn. The heat is intense enough to also heat kimchi, melt cheese and cook a smooth, quivering egg custard around the side – all fitting companions for the smoky, intense meats on the grill.
But the meat is the real thing that differentiates Seorae from the others. Specifically, they use a cut of pork called the galmaegisal, which comes sliced into little, well marinated morsels that drip juices and lure flames up from the coals below. This muscle is the pig’s ‘flap meat’, running along the ribs and above the belly, and was once reserved for nobility and royalty.
Done on the grill in a minute, the meat’s flavour is mostly supplanted by the gochujang or soy based marinades. But the key is the texture – a dense, pleasing squelch both inside and outside, all the springiness of tendon with the juice and softness of meat. It feels a little like beef, actually, with its texture and the deep maroon colour of the raw meat.
The galmaegisal turns out to be merely the first in a parade of interesting cuts. There is hangjeongsal, or pork jowls – looking as pale as the galmaegisal is red. Half meat and half fat, the meat doesn’t take on much colour from the grilling. What does emerge is an intriguing texture, the meat taut, the rendered fat almost crisp.
As for the beef, the highlight is in the ribs, especially the jinkkotsal – basically all of the galbi, except for the bone. And just in case that’s not luxurious enough, Seorae uses wagyu in this cut, though I’m not sure it is a good idea. The meat is still juicy and tender, yes, but it gives up its fat so easily that a lot of it ends up dripping into the coals when it could be dripping into my mouth.
Even as the grill is going on, though, we are plied with other staples of Korean cuisine. Sundubu jjigae, despite the scarlet layer of chilli oil on top, turns out to be savoury and unaggressive. Kimchi jeon, a new addition to the menu, also dials back on the spice, using more mature kimchi to emphasise its rounded, fermented sourness instead. And pajeon (pictured) is always a pleaser, packed with fresh seafood and spring onions and just a little soft in the centre. It’s all, well, it’s satisfactory.
‘Satisfactory’ also describes of the large array of bingsu, each named after a part of Seoul. I’m not really a fan of bingsu, but some do leave an impression – the Itaewon, with western influences (namely coffee jelly and Bailey’s), as well as the Namdaemun topped with a scoop of rum and raisin ice cream.
Nonetheless, bingsu and pancakes alike feel more like sideshows, distractions even, compared to the things happening on the grill which are more awesome by far. I get that it’s a way to fill up, taking into account the rather steep prices of the meat. But if I’m coming here, I will do so with a clear idea of what I’m after.
And Seorae has sensed that too – which is why they’ve got late-dining offers, where you can either get 2 soju bombs or a bingsu with a minimum spending of $60 from 8.30pm onwards. (What with the price of the meats, this is a very easy target.)
And that is more the spirit – to eat copious amounts of meat, talk loudly, and get head-splittingly drunk, preferably with your devastatingly handsome sergeant major buddy. Unfortunately it seems unlikely we’ll meet any Korean movie stars out in this particular Seorae. But the rest – the meat, drinking and talking loudly – will do nicely.
68 Orchard Road
Plaza Singapore, #02-01
Mon – Thu: 11.30am – 10pm
Fri – Sat: 11.30am – 11pm
Sun: 11.30am – 10pm
No Grill and Patbingsoo:
Mon – Fri: 3.00pm – 5.00pm