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29 Oct 2007

Platinum Beer Buffet – On Friday I made a visit to one of my favorite beer bars in Seoul: Platinum. It can be found right outside exit #8 of Gangnam Station on the No. 2 (green) line. Accompanying me was Gord “Bladder of Steel” Sellar.

I had been looking forward to this particular trip for quite some time. Gord and I met up a while back and hung out in Insa-dong, and at some point I mentioned Platinum. He said he’d like to give it a try, and Friday we finally made the time. Little did I know that Gord is not actually human—he’s Scottish. Maybe I had already had too many beers by the time I asked him what sort of name Sellar was, or maybe it was his easy-going appearance that lulled me into a false sense of security. Whatever the case, after my third trip to see a man about a horse, I came to a shocking realization: Gord does not pee. (OK, so he did go to the restroom once before we left, but I’m pretty sure he just stood there and looked at his watch until he felt an appropriate amount of time had passed.)

Gord also knows how to put away beer. I started off at a decent pace, a tad faster than Gord, and I was concerned that I might be rushing him. But as the night wore on, Gord began to catch up and he soon overtook me. Two minutes before last call, Gord had finished his sixth and I still had almost a third of my sixth left. The good soul that he is, Gord helped me finish that off so we could get one more in before the bell (there isn’t really a bell, but I think it would be cool if they installed one—it would help foster that sudden feeling of panic and desperation you get in a British pub at last call).

We ate as well, of course, since this was dinner, but I don’t think either of us ate that much. I had one cold plate of sushi, California rolls, salad, and the like, followed by a hot plate of things like chicken and sweet and sour pork, and then we had some fruit and nuts to hold us through the remainder of the night. As for the beer, I can’t remember the exact order, but I ended up having three Platinums, two Wheat Beers, one Cream Stout, and one Brown Ale. I don’t remember exactly what Gord had, but he seemed to have a fondness for the Wheat Beer and stuck with that for most of the evening. All in all, good beer and good company made for a very enjoyable time. Below is our first round: Platinum for me (on the left) and a Belgian White for Gord (with my first plate of food reflected in the glasses).

Next up was my Brown Ale, and in this photo you get a better look at our food. On the right edge of the picture you can see the hand of Go(r)d lurking in the darkness.

The following is the last photo I took that night; after our third round we were more interested in drinking and talking, and the camera was put away. It probably would have been put away earlier, but I wanted to take a shot of the Cream Stout settling. In the background is Gord’s beer, which I’m going to guess was a Wheat Beer.

Had this been my first visit, I might have written a first impressions review, but I’ve been to Platinum at least a half dozen times. So what follows is based on my accumulated knowledge of the place. First, the basics. The “beer buffet,” on the second floor (which is the only floor I’ve ever been to—the first floor has a steakhouse and the basement has a mini-buffet, from what I hear), is all the food you can eat and all the beer you can drink. It’s open from 18:00 to 21:30, and you can stay until 22:00 to finish off the last of your beer and food. All of my previous visits had been during the week, but I found out this time around that after 22:00 on Friday and Saturday it turns into a regular bar, where you pay by the beer.

The price has gone up considerably since the first time I went—Mondays through Thursday it is 27,700 won a person, while on Friday and Saturday the price goes up to 29,700. I’m obviously not too thrilled about the price increase, but I suppose it is understandable. In the beginning it was very cheap (less than 20,000 per person), but they’ve made improvements in both the food and service, so I can’t really complain. I just hope that this trend doesn’t continue—it seems to have gotten more expensive every time I visit. It’s still easily worth the trip, but if these price increases continue there will come a day when it may no longer be worth it.

And while I’m griping, I will say this: if you can help it, don’t go on a Friday or Saturday. Not only is it more expensive, but there are more people there as well. It gets crowded during the week, but not as crowded, and people don’t usually reserve during the week, so you can easily get a window-side table if you arrive first. Also, I have to wonder about the difference in food service on weekdays and weekends. This was my first weekend visit, so I have nothing to compare to, but I was a bit disappointed in the buffet this time. Last time they had fajitas and more hot foods. I don’t know if this is a trend that will continue or just a temporary thing, but there does seem to be a bit of fluctuation in the buffet.

But these are my only real gripes, and I wanted to get them out of the way first because they don’t really affect my ability to enjoy a visit to Platinum. Although good beer places are becoming more and more common in Seoul, the combination of all-you-can-eat food and (more importantly) all-you-can-drink beer is a winner. When you think of it that way, even at nearly 30,000 won a person, Platinum is incredibly cheap. Where else can you get a half dozen good beers (or more), plus anju (snacks or food eaten with drinks) for that little?

I’m not going to waste any time talking about the buffet. Suffice it to say that it does it’s job well—it provides beer drinkers with something tasty to munch on and helps to absorb some of the alcohol. If you want to see the food, this Korean blog has some very nice photos of the buffet and close-ups of the food. And while we’re on the subject of Korean blogs, Simplet has a very nice post that has photos and mini-reviews of each of the seven types of beers. A working knowledge of Korean is obviously going to help with both of these blogs, but even if you can’t read Korean you can still enjoy the excellent photos.

Now to get on to the meat of the entry, so to speak—the beer itself. Platinum serves seven different types of beer. I’m going to go through each of them one by one, starting with a rough translation of the description on the menu and following that with my thoughts and comments. The number in parentheses next to the beer name is the alcohol content.

Wheat Beer (4.7%): One of Germany’s representative beer styles, this beer is made from a half-and-half mixture of barley and wheat. This traditional German wheat beer is fermented from a yeast that has aromas of vanilla and clover.

The best wheat beer I’ve ever had was Erdinger’s Weißbier on tap. It was amazingly smooth, like drinking silk, and tasted great (my wife, upon tasting it, immediately declared it the best beer she’d ever had). Platinum’s Wheat Beer is no Erdinger, but it is still quite good. It is very flavorful and smooth, and I can easily understand why it was Gord’s favorite.

Belgian White (5.1%): A Belgian-style wheat beer; the orange and coriander flavors of the ingredients and smooth-tasting yeast used to ferment this brew produce a beer that goes down smoothly and has a sweet fragrance.

When it comes to Belgian white beers, Hoegaarden is the standard by which I measure all comers, and I have to say that Platinum does a very good job of meeting that standard. Like the description says, it has the characteristic orange/coriander fragrance and smooth taste. It’s a perfect brew for a warm summer’s eve. The weather is getting colder now, so I skipped it on Friday, but I’ve had at least one Belgian White during each of my previous visits.

Platinum (4.5%): This beer combines traditional English brewing methods and American and European hops and malt. The flavor produced by the harmony of five types of hops and yeast can give the illusion of a beer brewed with fruit. This is Platinum’s representative brew.

This is my favorite of Platinum’s beers. Although the description doesn’t mention this, it is a good approximation of an IPA (in taste, at least—it has a lower alcohol content than your typical IPA). I’m a big fan of IPAs and their hoppy taste, so this is a natural choice for me. It’s not quite as good as IPAs I’ve had back in the States (at Mug’s Ale House in Brooklyn, for example), but as far as I know it’s the closest you can get to a real IPA on tap in Korea.

Brown Ale (5.5%): This brew brings together the flavor of English ale yeast and the strong flavor of malt. Especially strong malt is used to produce a traditional English beer with rich and deep flavor.

The ale seems to be a popular choice at Platinum; they were out the first two times I visited. Maybe this is because ale is not an easy beer to get in lager-inundated Korea. Whatever the case, it’s a good, solid ale, although maybe not quite up to the standards of some of the ales I had in England.

Pilsner (4.7%): A traditional Czech beer produced in the Pilsen region, this beer is made with large amounts of Czech hops that are aged for at least fifty days. Most of the beer mass-produced today is a variation on pilsner designed to make it easier to produce. Pilsner is the representative style of traditional European beer.

This is my least favorite of Platinum’s offerings—which isn’t to say that it isn’t good, I just don’t happen to like it as much as the other beers. I’ve never had a real pilsner on tap, but we occasionally get bottles of Pilsner Urquell when we can find them. Even with the advantage of being on tap, Platinum’s Pilsner can’t hold a candle to Pilsner Urquell bottles. Still, it’s not a bad beer, and I think it’s better than any big brewery lager you’ll find in Korea.

Cream Stout (4.1%): Stout captures the taste of Ireland, the home of dark beer. It is produced using a nitrogen system, a technology possessed by only a handful of brewing companies worldwide. This traditional dark beer is the ideal harmony of a head so smooth it calls to mind cappuccino and the strong flavor of malt.

It’s impossible to talk about stouts without comparing them to Guinness, and Platinum’s Cream Stout falls short in this regard. But it is a real stout, which is more than can be said for a certain beer marketed by Hite. The “nitrogen system” mentioned in the description refers to the way the characteristic head is achieved—nitrogen forms smaller bubbles than carbon dioxide and produces a much smoother (and longer lasting) head. It also requires time to settle, as you can see in the photo above.

Despite using a Guinness-like “nitrogen system,” the staff at Platinum apparently have no real knowledge of how to pour such a stout. The Guinness method is to pour three-quarters of the glass, wait until it settles, and then push up on the tap to fill the remainder more slowly. I have fond memories of unfinished pints of Guinness settling as eager patrons waited for their servings of liquid joy. That gets a bit lost at Platinum, where they pour the Cream Stout the same as any other beer. As far as the taste goes, it is definitely a bit lighter than Guinness, but it is still pretty good (and, again, probably the best native stout you’ll find in Korea). And it’s still fun to watch it settle, even if you have to do it at your table.

Morphine (8.4%): This strong blond beer is made with twice the amount of ingredients as normal beer and fermented at a relatively high temperature. Despite its high alcohol content, it has a smooth and mellow taste. It is not distilled, but produced entirely through fermentation and a minimum five-month aging process, creating the finest beer of the age with a flavor and aroma second to none.

When I first had a glass of Morphine I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had tried other high alcohol beers elsewhere and they had tasted rather vile. So I was very surprised to find that Morphine is as smooth and mellow as the description says. Unfortunately, it still has an alcohol content of 8.4%, so drinking it is like getting hit in the head with a velvet-covered mallet. Yes, it does taste good, but not as good as some of the other beers, and during recent trips to Platinum I have been hard pressed to come up with a good reason to drink it. Oh, and I should also mention that it costs extra, above and beyond the price of the buffet. Give it a try if it’s your first visit (and make sure you drink it last), but that’s all you’ll really need.

You can probably see the pattern in the above mini-reviews of the various beers on offer. For one, I found it hard to provide specific information on taste and other aspects of the beers. While I am a beer lover, I’m not enough of a connoisseur to take tasting notes and write about things like “mouthfeel.” Besides, after a few glasses, tasting notes become useless anyway. So, apologies to those who were expecting professional reviews. Perhaps during future visits I will take tasting notes on the first one or two beers I have.

Anyway, to sum up my thoughts: none of these beers are the best of their type I’ve ever had, but they are all very good versions of the originals and can stand on their own merits. If you want a really good Belgian white beer, go to someplace like the Three Alley Pub in Itaewon and get Hoegaarden on tap. If you want a really good stout, go to Buck Mulligan’s in the basement of the Finance Center for a properly poured pint of Guinness (Three Alley Pub has Guinness as well, but Buck Mulligan’s is better). But be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for the privilege (especially at Buck Mulligan’s, where, during my last visit at least, the pints of Guinness cost over 12,000 won). If you’re looking for unlimited glasses of a fairly wide selection of good quality microbrews with unlimited anju and a nice atmosphere to boot—all for a very reasonable price—then Platinum is an excellent choice.

The bottom line is that, while the beer may not be the best ever, it is very good and (as long as you are serious about drinking) very cheap. If you’re a beer drinker in Seoul, check it out. And if you can’t find anyone to go with, drop me a line and maybe I’ll keep you company.

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