Gangnam Korean Barbecueby Amy Searll / 17.10.2013
When I try a new restaurant, especially if it’s one I’ve found out about by word of mouth, I desperately want to like it. That’s always the risk. It could be the place you imagined or… not. As Forrest Gump never said, trying a new restaurant is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get”. One chilly Saturday night we ventured into Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene, known by everyone as Joburg’s ‘new’ Chinatown with the intent of surpassing our old favourites in the hope of finding a new one.
At night, Derrick avenue is quiet, most places are shut, and only a few restaurants are filled in contrast to the noisy, smoky bustle of daytime, where the streets are filled with sizzling woks and people haggling over the price of Bok Choy and smoked ducks.
We decided to have our first Korean barbecue experience at the totally unironically named Gangnam Korean Barbecue. It’s in a small building quite a distance from the road, with only a tiny neon sign, so look carefully.
I come from a culture totally entrenched in rituals, especially when it comes to food, and maybe that’s why I love any kind of ritualistic meal. Something that uses interesting implements, and involves people in a way that’s more than just eating. In that sense, Korean barbecue didn’t disappoint.
Gangnam is a small neutral space with yellow walls and posters advertising Korean drinks. What made it interesting were the tables.
In the middle of each table is a circular cutout with a small bucket of coals that fits just under the surface of the table. Once the coals are lit, a small round grate like a hubcap is put over the coals and used as a cooking surface.
‘Side dishes’ are brought to the table, in our case, delicious cold Bok Choy dressed in sesame oil, bean sprouts, and small ‘pancakes’ like tiny cold fritattas filled with chives, green beans with a hint of lemon, and Kimchi; white cabbage pickled in vinegar and enough chilli to bite. There were also lettuce wraps for the meat, and fermented bean paste.
Our waitress recommended ‘galbi’; beef short ribs pounded until thin and marinated. They were brought to the table raw. The waitress smeared half an onion over the now sizzling hubcap – surface, chopped it with poultry scissors and placed it on the hot metal, followed by the ribs.
After about fifteen minutes she returned to turn them over, and we ate. They were delicious. Just enough fat, the marinade sweet and peppery. There was something quite special about eating them literally just off the grill right at the table.
Next up, a very traditional dish called bibimbap. A sizzling bowl filled with sticky rice, different julienned vegetables, dried seaweed and a raw egg. The idea is to quickly mix everything together so the egg is cooked by the sizzling bowl. I don’t think ours worked, because the egg never really cooked and it tasted mostly like raw egg and fermented bean paste. Maybe I’m just too used to Western food, but I really disliked the dish.
Much more successful was the ‘sweet chilli chicken’ as it was called on the menu. It was crunchy fried chicken, covered in a very moreish sweet hot sauce sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
At the end of the meal I realised I had a problem. I could read as many cookbooks or watch as many TV shows as I liked; if I had never tasted Korean food before, I had nothing to go on. I knew what a perfect roast chicken tasted like, and what the ideal consistency of scrambled eggs should be, but here I had no benchmark, no comparison. So I reviewed Gangnam purely based on my personal tastes, and flavours that I found interesting. It’s completely different to Chinese food, but no less tasty. Go for the chicken, but more importantly, go for the adventure, because that’s what food is really about.
Gangnam Korean BBQ, Shop 28, Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene, Johannesburg.