After an exhausting day relaxing at the Han River all afternoon (can you sense the sarcasm?), I am barely able to drive to Insa-dong in search of some more delicious eats. My partner in crime and I walk around the back alleys to look for that special restaurant (they all look special and the same to me) where we hope to find our new regular dining hot spot. Many signs and photos entice us to enter their establishment but we choose the restaurant at the end of an alley way that showcases their multiple appearances on TV food programs. It’s name is Choi Dae Gam Nae, which roughly translates to the best food for the upper class and nobles. This place has to be good, right?!
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Food: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
We picked something safe and always a sure fire hit—sweet bulgogi and rice wrapped in lotus leaf. I was tempted to be adventurous and order something I’ve never eaten before like raw beef tartare, but I really didn’t want to take a chance on this night since we were totally wiped out from relaxing all day, remember? To the point, the food was pretty simple yet tasty. The sure sign you’re enjoying food is the unexpected silence that envelops a table, and when you do start talking the food is practically all gone. That was our scenario. In addition to the bulgogi, we received about 6 banchan side dishes, ssam (lettuce wraps), gaeran jjim (egg casserole), and dwenjang jjigae (soybean paste soup). I can’t say there was anything spectacular about the bulgogi and the rest of the dishes, but I think collectively they tasted really well together. Collectively, I mean in this order: ssam with bulgogi (swallow), then gaeran jjim (swallow), lastly dwenjang jjigae (swallow), repeat 10x. Sounds good, huh?
Service: ★★½ out of 5 stars
Probably the most disappointing part of the meal was the service, which is quite surprising because most Korean restaurants excel in this area. It’s almost to a fault and a burden where I’ve had wait staff be so attentive and helpful (literally like a slave) that made want to tell them to just chill and relax. However, on this night, the waitresses were not all that helpful and at times they were nowhere to be seen. When they were seen, they mostly attended to the larger tables who consisted of tourists. I could understand and accept poor service if the restaurant was busy or something (which they were not) so it hurts to dock them for something that could have easily been avoided.
Ambiance: ★★★ ½ out of 5 stars
The decor was somewhat enigmatic to me. In some ways, it seems they wanted to keep it rustic and traditional (as the Insa-dong way) with a large stone grinder next to a mini watermill on the outside but add a more modern feel on the inside with marbled floors and several artworks on the wall. I would have preferred the more rustic approach with wooden floors, low-top tables, and artisan ornaments that usually adorn most traditional restaurants. Regardless, we thoroughly enjoyed our window seat with mini watermill and grinder in plain sight. The beautiful evening added to its luster.
Value: ★★★½ out of 5 stars
Having had similar bulgogi and banchan side dishes many times before, the value here lies in the area representing old Korea—Insadong. People (aka tourists) come here to experience the abundant galleries, artworks, tea shops, traditional crafts and of course the restaurants. In the spirit of tourist-plagued destinations, inflation always take precedence so you really can’t complain when you eat in this district. Our meal was a respectable 30,000 won ($30 dollars). If you’re feeling the pinch, just make the bulgogi yourself.
Overall rating: ★★★½ out of 5 stars
Choi Dae Gam Nae (최대감네)
Seoul, Jongro-gu, Gwanhun-dong 29-3