It all started with a “When Harry Met Sally”-style, “I’ll have what he’s having moment.” That’s how I ended up at Seoul Jung, not exactly a top-of-mind Korean restaurant for locals.
It’s tucked away in the Waikiki Resort Hotel, which generally caters to travelers from Korea and flight crews from Korean Airlines, which owns the property. I figured that KAL’s reputation for excellence would carry over to the restaurant, but that’s not what brought me there.
It was K-pop phenom BTS.
It so happened that the group — which is causing a commotion everywhere on its world tour — was on the Big Island and Oahu last spring for the filming of its annual summer vacation package “Bon Voyage.”
The day after watching a made-in-Hawaii episode of that series, I headed straight to Seoul Jung to sample the mul naengmyeon (cold noodle soup) and doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew) that nearly drove group members Suga (Min Yoon-gi) and V (Kim Tae-hyung) to tears after they’d been away from Korean food for two weeks.
Waikiki Resort Hotel, 2460 Koa Ave.
>> Call: 921-8620
>> Hours: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. daily
>> Prices: About $60 to $75 for two without alcohol
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Generally I’m not one who needs a pop-culture reference to spark a culinary expedition, but I understand the impulse. Films like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” each left me hungry for nigiri sushi and Chinese food, respectively.
At Seoul Jung I would be able to try the same dishes and compare my response.
As soon as I was seated, I asked the wait staff if they remembered BTS, and they did! From there I had 100 questions — “Were they cute? Were they funny? Did you talk to them?” — only to find Suga and V left no strong impression. I was told they were quiet and polite, sitting in the very back, in a room with more privacy than the main dining room.
People are not usually seated there unless the dining room is full. That’s when I was told about Japanese visitors who show up with screenshots in hand and, matching up the artwork on the walls, beg to sit in the same seats Suga and V occupied. I was fine with sitting in a booth outside that room.
THE RESTAURANT caters to the Korean palate, with flavors lighter and more refined than local-style Korean. In fact, when sampling food on their Hawaii visit, the BTS members’ reaction was that the food here is extremely salty.
In contrast, Suga said Seoul Jung’s food “hit the spot,” and the soybean stew ($16.95) reminded him of his mom’s cooking. Their smiles, tears and quiet reverie as they emptied their bowls said a lot.
Let’s just say they are way more emotional than me. In all my years of eating, no food has driven me to tears, only laughter that comes from happiness. And because I’m not Korean, I don’t have the reference point, nostalgia and longing for home that they do. But I can say I found the food both luxurious and comforting, though at a Waikiki premium that’s a deterrent for locals.
Suga and V’s minimalist dinner was interesting because of its lack of meat, another contrast to our meat-centric way of dining. The stew had some beef, but in an amount that didn’t compare with the kalbi, barbecue chicken or meat jun that is usually the centerpiece of a local-style Korean table or plate lunch.
I had to have a lot more so I started with elegant gesal mari ($18.50), wraps of crabmeat rolled into thin flour-and-spinach crepes, pan-crisped around the edges and served with a honey- mustard sauce.
These were enjoyed with banchan of sesame-scented shiitake mushrooms, a potato salad with crisp apples, kim chee, bean sprouts and more. These vary daily.
Next came those BTS dishes. I’ve never been much of a fan of mul naengmyeon ($15.50), so found the cold noodle soup simply refreshing as usual, the buckwheat noodles topped with slices of apple and half a boiled egg, in a broth of beef and vegetables, brightened with vinegar and clear soda. It’s served with extra vinegar for those who crave more of the sourness associated with authentic Korean fare.
The doenjang jjigae ($16.95) was more to my taste, and I could see why Suga appreciated it. It had the flavor of home, mild and comforting, a simple soybean paste, tofu, beef and vegetable stew that one could eat every day without tiring of it.
BECAUSE NO Korean meal feels complete without meat, I ordered the L.A.-style grilled, sliced kalbi ($28.95), so succulent and tender it was easily the highlight of the meal. Wang-style kalbi on the bone ($28.95) is also available, but I was in a lazy, no-fuss mood, so having the short ribs finished and cut in the kitchen was fine with me. Both arrive on a sizzling platter.
If you’re the grill-it-yourself type, you can always order assorted meats for a customized barbecue experience. Selections range from kalbi and sirloin ($26.75 each), to black pork belly ($23.95), beef tongue ($24.75) and beef tripe ($25.95).
Wanting to try a few more dishes, I was back a few days later for the restaurant’s samgyetang ($25.95), a popular summer dish that we can enjoy year-round because of our endless summer. We tend to call it chicken soup, but its centerpiece is a whole Cornish hen stuffed with rice, energy-giving ginseng, chestnuts, dates and vegetables. Because it’s supposed to be a healthy dish, all the flavor comes from the bird and stuffing ingredients. By local standards it is flavorless, so salt and pepper are offered on the side. It was another dish I found comforting with just a pinch of salt, though friends, to use a Korean expression, found it “lacking.”
They were won over by the stone-pot dolsot bibimbap ($18.95), in a pot so hot it was one of the few times the promise of crispy rice came true as we pressed the rice to the sides. The resulting nurungi rice crust (like “okoge” in Japanese) is browned, slightly sweet and delicious.
The restaurant offers a streamlined menu for lunch, with a handful of stews ($13.95 to $15) and entrees of grilled fish ($14.95), barbecue chicken ($13.75) and kalbi ($14.65).
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.