Last Saturday evening I dined at Balwoo Gongyang, a Michelin 1-Star restaurant in downtown Seoul. In an added twist, it is the only Michelin star restaurant serving beautifully prepared and delicately flavoured temple cuisine. Welcome to week 321 (23/3/2017) of Travel Photo Thursday. My apologies for not being around much. This semester is a particularly busy one for me, so my blogging time is severely limited at the moment. Join me as I entice your taste buds with our multi-course tasting menu.
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Dinner service at Balwoo Gongyang offers three tasting menus ranging in price from 45,000 Won to 95,000 Won. The last one must be ordered a day in advance, since, according to their website, many of the ingredients are relatively rare. In our group, we all opted for the 45,000 Won menu. The menus and ingredients reflect the seasons. The current tasting menus are utilizing spring ingredients.
We began with Suljuksim(Amuse-bouche), a cherry tomato marinated in fermented Bokbunja sauce(Korean wild raspberry). According to the restaurant’s website:
“First dish is to moist one’s dried mouth and help to enhance the digestion as old Koreans eat water-gimchi or a dip of long-preserved soy sauce. Suljuksim can be interpreted as two different meanings; one is to moist the mouth, and the other to moist the spoon.”
We were given very explicit instructions from our lovely server that we must bite into the tomato with our mouths closed. I was expecting tart, but instead, the flavor was a distinct tangy pop. The suljuksim was served with Ssukkong-juk (Porridge with mugwort and bean) and Spring Mulkimchi (watery Kimchi). Both the cherry tomato (which is marinated in five-year-old bokbunja (vinegar), and the Kimchi had a pleasant texture and were cool to the palette. I found the porridge too gritty and on the bland side.
“Juk(porridge) has been served as an early breakfast for the Buddhist practitioners. According to the Four Part Vinaya, book of precepts, eating juk has five advantages such as resolving hunger, quenching thirst, helping digestive problem, preventing stroke and normalizing bowel movement.”
Next, was the Sangmi(Salad or Cold Preparation)
“Taste in Buddhism is classified into 10 different categories. Among them, sangmi means to feel the taste and smell. Thus sangmi is the course to excite the appetite through taste and smell.”
The salad on the left is a green root harvested on Ullengdo Island. The taste is mellow, and sesame seed enhances the flavour. This root is not pictured on the restaurant’s website, so I am not sure of the name. The middle dish is Bomnamul-japchae, stir-fried sweet potato noodles with spring vegetables. On the far right is Cheongpomuk, mung bean jelly with spring vegetable. All three were pleasant, and being a huge sesame seed fan, my favourite was the green root with the sesame.
The Sangmi was followed by the next two courses served together. The Dammi(Starter or Hot Preparation) which included Beoseot-gangjeong(Deep fried mushrooms with special Gochujang sauce),Yeongeun-chojeolim(Pickled lotus root), Wooung(Burdock) mixed with Gochujang sauce, Nokdu-jeon(Mung bean pancake), Bomkkot-jeon(Spring flower pancake). The Seongso(Noodle) which included Pyogobeoseot-naengmyeon (Cold noodle with spicy shiitake mushroom & pear sauce), Dubu-gui (Grilled bean curd)
and Temple mandu (Temple recipe vegetable dumpling).
“Dammi is the taste of chewing or taste by food texture. Dammi is the dish of unique texture and recipe, from which one can enjoy the chewing texture of food.”
“Seongso is another name for noodle in Buddhism, which means the dish that makes even the practitioners smile. This course includes tofu, pan-fried cake, and dumpling as well as noodle that makes the practitioners who don’t usually devour smile.”
This was my favourite course of the evening. The deep-fried shiitake mushrooms were perfectly cooked and could have passed for a meat dish. The noodles were not the most elegant to eat, but they too were a pleasant tease on the taste buds. The mandu and the nokdu-jeon (pancake0 were cooked to perfection. The spring flower pancake (Bomkkot-jeon) added a hint of sweetness to the course.
The Sangmi and Dammi courses were the prelude to the main course, Youmi. We enjoyed two kinds of temple kimchi, two types of Bomnamul(spring vegetable), Jangajji(Fermented pickle), Yeonipbap(Steamed rice wrapped in lotus leaf), and Doenjang-jjigae(Soybean paste stew).
“Youmi is the taste that helps to recover from illness. Youmi consists of dishes such as rice, condiments, and soup that ease daily physical fatigue and mental stress of the people today.”
The sticky rice was cooked to perfection. The crust formed while cooking it in the lotus leaves gave it a nice crunch. This was my favourite of the course. The Kimchi was also crunchy, flavorful, and not spicy. The spring vegetable on the right was probably the bitterest tasting food I have ever eaten. My taste buds were shocked, and not in a nice way. You are warned!
Our lovely tasting menu ended on a sweet note with the Ipgasim(Dessert) course.
“Rounding the meal up is the ipgasim or dessert. It is prepared with ingredients and recipes that clean the remaining taste in the mouth and help to enhance digestion.”
The Sikhye(sweet rice punch) provided a taste of sweet and the Ssuk gaetteok(Mugwort rice cake) balanced that sweetness perfectly.
Our group of five enjoyed the experience. We even added a bit of wine to the occasion. Although, Balwoo Gongyang does not sell alcohol diners are welcome to bring their own wine, for a modest corkage fee.
Balwoo Gongyang is open for lunch and dinner six days a week (closed Sunday), starting from 11:30 am. Their website doesn’t give a closing time, but the staff started to hustle us out around 8:30 pm. We would have like to have stayed a little longer over our wine. If the restaurant wants to attract visitors from other countries, it would be a good idea to be a little more flexible when asking people to leave. The staff speaks English. However, they are shy about using the language, so you may have to be a bit insistent. Menus are available in English, Japanese and Chinese. For reservations, phone 02-733-2081, or via email. The set menus are well priced and include the VAT. Corkage is 20,000 for four diners.
The restaurant can be reached via subway line 3, exit 6, across from Joygesa Temple. When you enter the building walk straight through and take the elevator to the 5th floor.
You can check out Guide Michelin for a complete list of Michelin Star restaurants in Korea.
Have you ever eaten temple food or dined at a Michelin star restaurant? Let us know in the comments.
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