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9 Mar 2013

Celebrating with some braai – And so another semester begins. The first week is now over, and the wheels that may have rusted a bit during the semester break are starting to creak again. But the first week of March, in addition to generally marking the first week of the semester, also marks our wedding anniversary, and that’s what I’ll be writing about today.

“If you have a hankering for some South African barbecue, I would recommend it without reservation.”

Tuesday was our anniversary—it’s been sixteen years now—so we set out for dinner on the town. Hyunjin heard about a South African barbecue place in Itaewon called Braai Republic (“Braai” apparently means “barbecue”), so we decided to give that a try. It’s way down at the western end of the main drag in Itaewon, down the alley right before or right after McDonald’s, depending on whether you are coming from Itaewon Station or Noksapyeong Station (I think technically Noksapyeong might be a little closer, but getting out at Itaewon doesn’t require you to cross the street). We almost missed it because of the huge sign for the restaurant right next door, a crab place. Braai Republic is relatively unassuming, just an awning over the stairs leading up to the second floor restaurant and a small circular sign on the building itself.

I deliberately shot this picture to leave out the crab place sign, but you can see the edge of it at the far right. It is very large and very eye-catching, so if you’re not looking for Braai Republic you might miss it. Since we were looking for the place, though, we managed to find it easily enough. We went up to the second floor and got a table.

As expected, the menu features a lot of barbecued items, but there is also a selection of savory pies. We decided to go with the mixed plate, which came with two lamb chops, a pork banger, and a beef boerewors, plus garlic mash, slaw, and spinach. When it arrived, it looked delicious:

...but we also thought it might be a bit small for two people, so we ordered an additional chicken pie. Our waitress told us it would be about 25 minutes, which worked out nicely, making the pie a sort of second course. (The four guys at the table next to us ordered all their food, pies included, at once, which would seem to be a mistake—they had arrived before us but our barbecue platter came out before theirs, apparently because the kitchen intended to send out all the food at once. After one of the guys explained that they were starving and didn’t want to wait 25 minutes for all their food, their barbecue came out first.)

Hyunjin doesn’t really like lamb, so I was prepared to eat both chops (which is fine by me, as I love lamb), but after trying some of it she pronounced it the best lamb she had ever had. I’ve had a lot more lamb, so I’m not sure if I can say it is the best I have ever had, but I will agree that it was very good—seasoned and cooked perfectly. Thinking back on it now is making me salivate. Yeah, it was quite good. The sausages were good, too, although Hyunjin said she preferred the pork banger, and I would have to agree. The beef boerewors (“farmer’s sausage”) was fine, but not quite as juicy or flavorful as the banger. The sides were also excellent, and the portions were not skimpy. As it turned out, I think we probably could have gotten by on this platter and maybe a dessert, but we had already ordered the pie.

This is my half of the chicken pie—thankfully it wasn’t that big. As you can see, it was filled with chicken, potatoes, mushrooms, onions, and some herbs. Unlike a chicken pot pie, which has a lot more liquid to it and can even be soupy, this was packed full of solid goodies. At the same time, it wasn’t dry at all; I think it struck the perfect balance. It would probably be a bit of shame to go to Braai Republic and not get any actual braai, but the pies—at least the chicken pie—are worth the trip as well. I was happy when a Jester’s opened up not too far from Itaewon Station, but it wasn’t long before they changed their pies (they were circular, now they are square, and some of the original variations are gone) and stopped offering toppings. When that happened, we sadly didn’t see too much of a reason to go anymore. So I’m quite pleased to have found somewhere I can go if I get a hankering for a meat pie.

You would think that the barbecue platter and the chicken pie would have been enough. But it was our anniversary, so we thought we would have a piece of Amarula cheesecake. We didn’t know what Amarula was, so we asked, and one of the owners came out and explained that it was kind of like Bailey’s but made with an African fruit. That dark topping you see on the cheesecake here is the Amarula, and it was good—it has a rich, caramel taste to it, which was a perfect compliment to the cake. And the cake itself was no slouch; I’m used to American-style cheesecakes, which tend to be rather firm, but this cake was on the creamy side, and it was excellent. The owner came out to see how we liked it, and he explained that they have a woman who makes the cakes for them, but they can never get enough and are always running out. If the cake is available, I would definitely recommend it for an interesting and delicious cheesecake experience.

Also in that last photo are our drinks. Braai Republic carries some of Korea’s macrobrews—I think Cass might have been on the menu, but my eyes kind of glaze over when I see Cass, Hite, or OB, so I honestly don’t remember what they were. But they also have two microbrews, both by Craftworks: the Namsan Pure Pilsner and the Halla Mountain Golden Ale. Hyunjin ordered the former and I ordered the latter, but after trying hers I would have to say I prefer the Golden Ale. The pilsner is good, but I like the flavor of the ale better.

And that was our dinner. With the exception of the boerewors, which I would call “good” (although I don’t think Hyunjin liked it too much), everything earned a rating of “excellent.” If you have a hankering for some South African barbecue, I would recommend it without reservation. We will definitely be going back at some point—one of the owners is Portuguese, and when Hyunjin mentioned that she had really liked the peri peri chicken when we were in South Africa, he told us we had to try their surf and turf, as they use peri peri seasoning in that. So that will be on our menu in the future at some point.

One interesting thing not related to the food: there is a wide-screen television in the restaurant, and while we were there they were playing some South African nature videos. We have been to South Africa, but we were in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and we never really got out of the cities. So it was nice to see the other side of the country (something I’d like to see in person some day). Anyway, one part of the video showed two giraffes dueling for territory (and the females in that territory, of course), and one of the owners explained that this was the first time such a battle had ever been caught on tape. That makes sense to me, because I can’t say that I have ever seen anything like it before. You might think that, like other animals, they would lower their heads and lock horns, but that is not at all what they do—instead, they swing their long necks and smash their heads like maces into the bodies of their rivals. It was so unlike anything I had ever seen a giraffe do before; everybody in the restaurant stopped what they were doing and just stared at the TV. Then, one of the giraffes landed a solid blow, knocking the other giraffe (whom we shall now call “Rocky”) down. Rocky fell against a boulder and lay there panting. Apollo (the other giraffe, of course) celebrated for a bit and then moved in for the coup de grace, but as he swung his head Rocky sprang into action, ducking under the blow and using his own head to attack Apollo’s legs. Apollo’s spindly legs went flying and he crashed to the ground, defeated. I just had to write about this because it was one of the most amazing wild animal duels I have ever seen.

We talked a bit with the owners before leaving. The one who explained the cheesecake to us is very friendly and gregarious (he shook my hand and gave Hyunjin a hug), while the Portuguese guy is quieter and soft-spoken. I think they would make a good sit-com pair, like the Odd Couple. But they were both very nice, and thanked us for coming, and we promised that we would return. After all, we have to try the peri peri surf and turf!

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