Stylish Chinese Bistro Baengnak
As chic, cozy eateries sprout up, the residential Cheongdam Park neighborhood in southern Seoul is perhaps, very slowly, turning into the next Seorae Village (a trendy area in Bangbae-dong).
Right next to the reputable French bistro L'Espoir is Baengnak _ a Chinese bistro that serves traditional Sino-Korean dishes with style. Forget the grimness of typical Chinese eateries in town. While it isn't luxurious like Yeun Kyung in Cheongdam-dong, Baengnak boasts a comfortable yet refined ambiance. The best part is that you can get great service at a tablecloth-covered table for simple meals under 10,000 won.
The owner decorated the place himself, finding inspiration from Italian eateries for the red cushion seats that line the faded green walls, which are adorned with framed antique photographs from the Mainland. The small, palm-sized place has only seven tables (which can be multiplied if separated into smaller spaces for parties of two), an open kitchen and visible storage space. When the weather becomes warmer, Baengnak opens up its folding door facade and turns into a romantic, open-air bistro.
The decor is a reflection of the food itself. With ``well-being China'' as its motto, Baengnak opts for fresh, quality ingredients. ``It's expensive, but we use only domestic produced meats and rice, and cook them with premium Canadian canola oil,'' the manager told The Korea Times. The chefs do not use MSG, which is notoriously associated with the local Chinese cuisine, though a small number of dishes may contain a pinch. They also swear that all foods, including side dishes, are never ``recycled.''
The menu features classic Korean-style Chinese dishes like ``jajangmyeon'' (noodles with black bean sauce) and fried rice (flying fish roe is favored among regulars). Various meat and vegetable entrees range from 20,000 won (``tangsuyuk'' or sweet and sour pork) to 98,000 won (shark's fin). Lunch and dinner sets are priced at 35,000 won and above.
The ``gganso'' or chili shrimp (32,000 won) initially surprised us, as it featured only six shrimps, as large as they were. But it reminded us of those miniscule portions in upscale, multiple-course meals. Beneath the sweet and spicy chili sauce, we could savor the fried bread covering that was at once crunchy, thin and soft, and finally the juicy meat. It would make a satisfying appetizer for two or three people. The cream shrimp sauce is also recommended.
Next came the ``gochu jajangmyeon'' (7,500 won). Gochu or pepper made it spicier and less greasy on the palate than regular jajangmyeon. The noodles were chewy, and the delectable sauce was savory with just the right consistency of veggies and pork. The ``samseon udong'' (seafood noodle soup; 8,000 won) was absolutely delightful. The seafood topping was generous and varied, and the soup had a deep, refreshing tang. This would be perfect for those who find ``jjambbong'' (spicy noodle soup) too hot.
We chose ``gyoja mandu'' or dumplings from the popular dim sum list. The plate of eight dumplings for 7,500 won is pricey, but the taste was unforgettable. The pork dumplings, steamed and then lightly fried, were crunchy on the outside and soft in the inside, oozing with broth as a reputable dim sum ought to.
Unlike most local Chinese eateries, Baengnak does not deliver. But you can call in advance (02-546-0032) to get takeout orders. To get there, take exit 6 from Cheongdam Station on subway line 7. Walk straight ahead and make a left at Starbucks, and you will find Baengnak's black billboard with two white Chinese characters. Open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and closed on Sundays.