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30 Nov 2012

A day off – Well, it looks like I’ve been averaging about one post a month for the past couple of months. I think we’ll have to do something about that in the future, especially with the semester break coming up. It’s easy enough to say that things have been very busy lately—it’s rare for things not to be busy. But even if I do have time in the evening, I often don’t have the motivation or mental energy to write anything here. Even this entry, which I’ve been wanting to write since the beginning of the week, has taken me several days to put together (granted, it is a bit on the long side).

“I had not intended to take the whole day off, but things snowballed and we ended up spending the whole day out on the town.”

With the semester winding down, though, things are becoming slightly less hectic, and this past Saturday I was actually able to take a day off. I had not intended to take the whole day off—Hyunjin and I were just planning on going downtown to see some exhibits—but things snowballed and we ended up spending the whole day out on the town.

We went out late in the morning and headed first to the Seoul Library (in what used to be City Hall). There they were having an exhibition on the colonial period author Yeom Sang-seop. I studied some of his novels as part of my graduate coursework and even translated one of them—it was, in fact, the first translation I did with the KLTI. It hasn’t been published, but at some point I would like to go back to it, clean it up, and see about getting it published somewhere.

This is the novel in question, Mansejeon. It’s a rather difficult title to translate—“Manse” literally means “ten thousand years” and is the Korean equivalent of “Long live (the king)!” However, here it refers to the March First Independence Movement in 1919. The suffix “-jeon” means “before,” so the title is essentially referring to “(events that happened) before the March First Independence Movement of 1919.” Which is a bit clunky, obviously.

This is a page from an earlier version of the novel—on the far right is the title of the work, Myoji. This is what the novel was called when it was serialized in the newspaper where it first appeared, and it means “cemetery” or “graveyard.” The page shown here is the first page of “Episode Two.”

There were other materials there, of course, including notes and manuscripts written by the author, as well as numerous informational panels. At the end of the exhibition, there was a table with booklets that contained reproductions of all of the materials in the exhibition, and I decided to get one. The normal price was 10,000 won, but since it was the last day of the exhibit they were on sale for 3,000 won. I couldn’t pass up a deal like that.

It was after noon by the time we were finished, so we decided to head out for lunch, and we walked out the front door of the library—at which point I nearly fell over backward. Directly in front of the Seoul Library is the new City Hall building, which is perhaps one of the most unique examples of architecture I’ve seen in a long time. I had seen it before, of course, but generally from the front or the side, and from a distance. It wasn’t until Saturday that I got the full effect. When you walk out of the front door of the Seoul Library, you find yourself staring at the glass facade of City Hall. There is no entrance in the rear, though, just a wall of glass that goes up and up—and then bends over like a curling wave about to crash on the shore.

It’s impossible to fully capture how overwhelming the structure is, but this photo should give you an idea. This is why I almost fell over backward—I found myself looking straight up at a nearly horizontal wall of glass. I think I might have heard something about the wave symbolizing progress or something like that, but to me the symbolism is obvious: the wave of the new Korea about to engulf the old City Hall building, a remnant of the Japanese colonial period. I could be wrong, but it does seem rather blatant.

We decided to take a look inside City Hall before getting lunch, and we walked around to the front. I was quite surprised when we walked in to see that the inner wall of the building was covered in climbing vines and other plants—the Hanging Garden of Seoul, as it were.

Here you can see the hanging garden, plus some sort of balloon sculpture. It has a name, and there was even a plaque explaining it’s symbolism, but I do not remember either. I do remember thinking that the explanation was faintly ridiculous and forced, and that the sculpture looked more like what I imagine a neuron would look like—if neurons were made out of balloons, of course.

After enjoying the hanging gardens (and it really was quite nice, balloon neurons aside), we went to the basement of the Seoul Finance Center, where there are a number of interesting restaurants. There is a relatively new place there called “ShyBana,” advertising itself as Southern U.S. comfort food, and we decided to give it a try. Hyunjin had a soft-shell crab cake burger and I had pork chop cooked with applesauce and other vegetables in a hot skillet. The crab cake burger was OK, but the cake itself was a bit thin and thus seemed to be more fried outer layer than tasty insides. The pork chop was better, in my opinion. The prices, though, were far higher than the food warranted. There are no cheap places in the Finance Center, so we were not terribly surprised. It was by no means an unpleasant experience, but I doubt we will have any reason to return.

After lunch we walked west across Sejong-ro, stopping halfway so I could take this picture to show you how beautiful it was on Saturday.

Crystal clear days are relatively rare in Seoul, but at this time of year we will sometimes be blessed with weather like this. It is, of course, colder with no cloud cover to keep in the heat, but it’s worth it to see such brilliant blue skies. This photo is looking north along Sejong-ro toward Gyeongbok Palace.

We continued west to the Seoul Museum of History, where there is currently a special exhibition on the neighborhood of Jeong-dong around the turn of the 20th century. This is where most of the foreign legations were built when Korea first opened her doors to the West, and it was home to many of the early diplomats, missionaries, and other foreigners who came to Korea back when it was too new to even be hip. It was a fascinating exhibit, and it really did feel like going back in time over a hundred years to a Seoul that would be unrecognizable today. I suppose it was even more interesting because Hyunjin, her father, and I went on a guided tour of historical Jeong-dong a few weeks ago. If you are in Seoul and are looking for an interesting experience and a trip through the history of Seoul, I would definitely recommend the exhibit (it will be open until January 20).

It was around five o’clock when we left the museum, and this was the end of what we had originally planned for the day. Since we were out, though, I wanted to check out a place I had recently discovered online, The Malt Shop. No, it’s not an ice cream parlor—it’s a liquor shop that specializes in malt whisky.

I suppose I should back up a little explain my interest in malt whisky. Before I came to Korea, I think I had tried whisky maybe twice in my entire life. The first time was when I was young and my father gave me a tiny sip of his. Actually, I don’t really have any idea what it was—it could have been bourbon for all I knew at the time—but I remember that I didn’t like it. I think I might have tried either bourbon or whisky once more after that, but I honestly don’t remember. When I came to Korea, I was primarily a beer drinker.

Drinking culture in Korea, though, is pretty hardcore. Beer is popular, of course, but so are spirits and liquors. Early on in my graduate studies, I was on a trip to record folktales in the countryside. Those first few years were great; we would go down to the countryside, divide up into small teams, walk around these small villages, and get people to share folktales with us. Then, in the evening, all the teams would meet back at our lodgings and drink until the wee hours of the morning. (I was much younger then, so drinking until the wee hours of the morning was something I could do and not be a complete wreck the next day.) One night, someone brought out a bottle of whisky and passed it around. Everyone turned to me, expecting that I would be the first to drink. Someone said, “It’s your hometown liquor, after all!”

That might not make much sense in English, but in Korean, whisky is called “yangju,” which literally means “Western liquor.” I was the only Westerner in the group, so whisky was “my” drink. Except it wasn’t. But I didn’t say that. Maybe I had already had too much to drink, or maybe it was just some twisted sense of duty to my “Western” heritage, but I gladly took a glass, and then another (and another). To my surprise, it wasn’t that bad. Even more surprisingly, the next morning I felt perfectly fine. My Korean friends attributed it to “Sintoburi” (literally, “body and earth are not two”—a phrase used in Korea to express the idea that people are most happy/healthy when eating foods from their native lands). I didn’t know why, I just knew that it worked.

I decided that I would become the “yangju” guy in my department. As I learned more about whisky, I learned that Koreans almost (although not entirely, as we will see) exclusively drink blended whisky, but there was also “single malt” whisky, which has a small, almost cult, following here. Then there was my favorite variety of American whiskey, “bourbon,” which is made primarily from corn (malt whisky is made entirely from barley). Being American, I decided that it was my “duty” to drink bourbon and bring bottles of it to drinking sessions when I could. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I started drinking malt whisky—that began with a bottle of the Glenlivet 12 year, a recommendation from my brother than has not gone unappreciated (the bottle is still on our shelf, at a little over half full now). While I still enjoy the taste of bourbon, the Glenlivet opened my eyes to single-malt Scotch whisky.

After discussing malt whisky with a knowledgeable friend online (I will freely admit that I am still very much a neophyte), I did a little searching around on the internet and discovered the above-mentioned Malt Shop. When I mentioned that I enjoyed the Glenlivet, this friend recommended the Balvenie (both are Speyside distilleries... uh, I’ll explain a little more about that in a moment), and I was pleased to see that the Malt Shop carried a few “expressions” (that is, varieties or ages) of the Balvenie. So (and here we finally get back to our story), with it still being a little early for dinner, especially since we had had a somewhat late lunch, I suggested that we head down to the Malt Shop to check it out. It is located near Seonjeongneung Station (although the woman who worked there later told us that they would soon be moving south to Seolleung Station, which is a more central location), so we took the No. 2 subway line to Wangshimni and then took the Bundang line down to Seonjeongneung. We arrived at the Malt Shop at around six o’clock.

The flash was a bit bright in this photo, especially on the (nearer) left, but you should still be able to appreciate the collection they have. It’s funny, but I didn’t even notice that the shelves were labeled until I looked at this photo later. The first one you can see is “Speyside,” and that also happens to be the label that’s cut off on the far left—Speyside whisky seems to make up the largest proportion of their selection (the region’s name comes from the fact that it is next to Spey Bay). Next is Highland, followed by Islay (pronounced “eye-lah”), Island & Lowland (two separate regions, but combined into one shelf here), and then “Japanese & etc.” at the far end. This is, of course, only one side of the shop—the other side houses blended whisky and some special malt varieties (like very old or limited editions). There is a center island that contains more alcohol, and at the far end (that is, the other end from what you can see here) was a row of flavored Stolichnaya vodkas that were open for tasting. The woman who worked there poured us each a shot of the chocolate-cherry vodka. I was dubious, but it was very good—maybe even dangerously good. It tasted like drinking a chocolate cordial cherry. Yum.

We were there for two things, though, and neither of them were vodka: a bottle of the Balvenie and a bottle of specialty gin that my friend had recommended, Hendrick’s (also from Scotland, incidentally). I was tempted to get a bottle of the 15-year Signature from the Balvenie, but it was a little (i.e., a lot) on the expensive side. We’re going to be hitting a duty-free shop in a few months, so I think I’ll try my luck there first and see what happens. We “settled” for a bottle of 12-year Doublewood, which happens to be the expression that my friend had recommended in the first place. And they had a bottle of Hendrick’s as well, so we were able to kill two birds with one stone. Of course, they were very heavy birds, and I had to carry them around for the rest of the night, but it was worth it. I think we’ll be going back to the Malt Shop in the future. They have a great selection, and the woman who works there (not sure if she is the manager or not—the manager’s name on the shop’s card is a woman’s name, so it might be her) is quite knowledgeable and very nice.

I suppose at this point we could have taken our spoils and headed home, but we weren’t too far away from the Garosugil (literally, “Tree-lined road”), a street that is apparently very popular with young Koreans and is known for its restaurants and shops. This was a trip that I wasn’t all that interested in making, but since Hyunjin had accompanied me to the Malt Shop I figured I should return the favor. So we got on a bus that took us to somewhere near Sinsa Station and then walked the rest of the way (with me lugging two 70 cl glass bottles of alcohol).

When we got to Garosugil we found a free guide pamphlet in a stand set up on the sidewalk (you can tell immediately what type of neighborhood Garosugil is—or at least the image it wants to project—from the cover, which is decorated with a patchwork of photos of fashionably-dressed, hip young people, like a Seoul version of The Sartorialist). Apparently we were in a carnivorous mood, because we chose two steak places from the guide as possibilities for dinner. The first was called “Eatry,” about two-thirds of the way up (i.e., north) on the left. It is a steakhouse that serves dry-aged steak. I don’t know if the name is a typo or intentional, but we tried to eat there and failed (eat + try?). Apparently the whole restaurant had been booked by a large group, and they were going to be there for the next two hours. It was already after seven o’clock, and we didn’t feel like waiting that long, so we went on to our second choice, which is also on the left near the northern end of Garosugil.

This second choice, and the restaurant at which we ended up eating dinner, was Two Plus, more of a Korean-style barbecue place, meaning that you grill the meat at your table. The name comes from the quality of meat used in the restaurant: in Korea, meat is given a number grades, from 3 at the low end to 1++ at the high end. I don’t know how these grades compare to USDA grades, but I imagine they are similar; like Prime beef in the U.S., 1++ beef in Korea is not generally sold in supermarkets. Anyway, the “Two Plus” name refers to the “1++” grade, which is quality of beef they serve.

Meat in Korean barbecue places is sold in “portions” or “servings,” and the portions here were 150 grams. We started off with two portions, or 300 grams, and we were presented with a single cut of meat, which we immediately put down on the grill.

The coals look black in this photo because of the flash, but in fact they were red-hot. But just look at that beef! Look at that marbling! The proof is in the tasting, though, and we waited (somewhat im)patiently for the meat to cook. Being that this is a Korean barbecue place, we used a pair of food shears to cut the meat up into bite-sized chunks, which of course also helps it cook more quickly. When I couldn’t see any more red on the surface of the meat, I picked up a chunk with my chopsticks and popped it into my mouth.

Now, I’ve had “high-quality” beef before in Korea. The area of Hoengseong, for example, is famous for its beef. One winter a few years ago, Hyunjin and I were driving in the provinces when a snowstorm overtook us. After several cars spun out ahead of us and a tour bus almost plowed into us sideways, we decided to get off the expressway and wait out the storm. We happened to be in the Hoengseong area, so we stopped at a Korean beef restaurant for lunch. There was a butcher shop on the first floor where you chose your meat and then you brought it up to the second floor to cook it at your table. This beef also looked amazing, and had great marbling. And the first bite was indeed amazing. But the more we ate, the more it felt and tasted like we were eating grease-soaked sponges. By the time we finished, I was feeling a little queasy from all the fat.

There have been other times when I’ve had supposedly “high-quality” beef in Korea only to find it way too greasy, like there was more fat than actual meat. This seems to be the general standard for judging the quality of meat in Korea—the more fat the better (witness the popularity of samgyeopsal, or pork belly). Me, I actually like the taste of meat, so I tend to be wary when given beef that is considered “high-quality” in Korea. These thoughts were in the back of my mind when I put that first piece of meat into my mouth at Two Plus. But any worries that I might have had were quickly dispelled. Hyunjin was chewing as well, and she just nodded and gave a thumbs up. Yes, it was that good—probably the best quality meat I’ve ever had at a Korean barbecue restaurant. An indicator of how confident the restaurant is in their beef is that it comes out completely unseasoned, and all you have is a small dish with a modest amount of coarse salt to dip the meat into (and, of course, the usual side dishes, which were also quite good, by the way—there was one dish of dried squid, dried figs and I think garlic stems that I never would have expected to work, but it did).

Being a Korean barbecue place, we were of course also given a basket of lettuce, sesame leaves, and other leafy greenery to wrap the meat in. To be honest, even after 17 years here I am still not a fan of wrapping meat in greenery to eat it. Hyunjin, however, is a big fan of wrapping; if you need any more proof of how good the meat was, neither of us touched the greenery, except to eat it as a salad in between bites of meat. I was thinking it, and then Hyunjin said it: “Why would anyone want to wrap this meat?” After we finished the 300 grams we ordered another portion and finished that off as well.

Unlike ShyBana, Two Plus definitely warrants a return visit. Hyunjin suggested that we return for my birthday next spring, and I wasn’t about to argue. Most of the seats are four-person booths with grills at the table, but there is also a small bar (as in a counter with stools to sit at) section. If you sit at the bar, there is a chef who cooks the steak for you. We asked about that and found out that you have to reserve seats there—and generally you need to reserve a month(!) in advance to guarantee spots. That seems a bit on the ridiculous side, but I have a feeling that we’re going to be reserving our spots there sometime in March next year.

After this unexpectedly excellent dinner (which cost us three times what lunch at ShyBana had run but was incomparably better), we walked to Apgujeong Station, where we got a bus back home. This, of course, is not the end of the story—after lugging those bottles halfway across Seoul, there was no way we weren’t going to pop open the Balvenie and have a dram or two.

Here is our loot, two treasures from Scotland. The text on the labels may not be legible, so here’s what it says on the Balvenie bottle, under the age (somewhat odd capitalization and italics preserved): “FIRST CASK: Many years of maturation exclusively in traditional whisky oak casks MELLOWS the maturing spirit and imparts gentle, warming layers of vanilla spiciness. SECOND CASK: A FURTHER few months’ maturation in European OAK SHERRY CASKS increases complexity, bringing FRUITY and honeyed depths to this single malt.” There is also a bit of text on the back of the Hendrick’s bottle, which reads: “This handcrafted gin is distilled from a proprietary recipe which includes traditional botanicals such as juniper, coriander and citrus peel. The ‘unexpected’ infusion of cucumber and rose petals result in a most iconoclastic gin. IT IS NOT FOR EVERYONE.” At twice the price of most other gins, it is indeed not for everyone. But I get to be an iconoclast! So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Here is the (slightly depleted) Balvenie and one of the two new whisky glasses we bought in which to enjoy our plunder (um, yeah, I might have gotten a little carried away). The lighting is less harsh here than in the previous photo because we’ve turned off the bright fluorescent light in the living room to create a gentler mood. We sat down with our glasses to have a nose and a taste. The little booklet that came with the bottle suggested adding “a small amount of water to release the rich bouquet and flavour of the whisky,” but I wanted to try it first without the water. It was good, but then I added a splash of water and tried it again, and I have to say I liked it better that way—it really did seem to open up the aromas and flavors. And using a little water will give you more bang for your buck (or won, in this case), so I think this is how I will be having my whisky from now on. At some point I want to compare the Glenlivet 12 with the Balvenie 12, but my initial impressions are in favor of the Balvenie. It is very good. I’m not really enough of a connoisseur to talk about the “bouquet” or “notes” that I discovered, but perhaps when I do that comparison tasting I will write down my impressions so that everyone can laugh at me for what a whisky noob I am.

Since Saturday we’ve also had the chance to try the Hendrick’s, in the form of gin and tonics after dinner the other night. If I had to name a favorite cocktail, it would probably be either a G&T or a Greyhound. (A Greyhound is essentially a Screwdriver with grapefruit juice instead of orange juice—the only reason I haven’t been making these is that it’s difficult to find white grapefruit juice here, and I really can’t imagine a Greyhound with ruby red grapefruit juice. Also, the vodka we do have, Tito’s, is so good by itself that it almost seems a crime to mix it.) But the above-mentioned friend of mine said that Hendrick’s made a good G&T, so I mixed up a couple using the proportions on the Hendrick’s website: two parts Hendrick’s to five parts tonic water (actually, I made Hyunjin’s a tad weaker and mine a tad stronger). I can’t really remember the last time I had a G&T, so it’s hard to compare, but I can say that these were excellent. I’m not sure what I was expecting from the Hendrick’s, but it wasn’t what I ended up getting: a drink that was very flavorful and aromatic but not at all pushy or cloying. The cucumber aroma is definitely present in the gin, but it complements the other aromas instead of overpowering them. In fact, the impression that I got was of perfect balance—a hair in any direction and it might fall over, but as it was it seemed to hit the nail right on the head. I suppose I will have to try it straight some time as well.

And that was the end of our day, or at least where I am going to end this extremely long entry. It was a very good day, if a bit tiring, and since I haven’t really had the motivation to write much lately, I thought it would be worthwhile to memorialize this one good day off. Perhaps when things get hairy again, as they always do, I can look back on this entry and smile.

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