Having seen some rave reviews about the restaurant Congdu, specialising in Korean dishes with a modern twist, I booked a table there last weekend since I’m always on the hunt for restaurants that do great Korean food in a creative way. Congdu is located behind Deoksugung Palace in a quiet atmospheric part of Seoul.
And the restaurant has a calm and sophisticated feel too with candles and a minimalistic style in a natural toned colour scheme. The subtle dim lit restaurant was already half full with customers chatting in hushed voices when we arrived at 6pm and our expectations were high. There was a large a la carte menu to choose from with 3 set courses starting with the green menu at (I think it was) 58,000 won. We chose this menu. HOWEVER, the restaurant just didn’t live up to my expectations.
The table is set with chopsticks and spoon, and knife and fork. The menu includes a large range of wines and the table is set with wine glasses. But we went for a Korean soju.
The first course was somen noodles in a broth with vegetables and beef. Or should I say a TINY portion of somen noodle soup served in a HUMONGOUS dish. Mr. Kim chuckled when he saw this dish. And it certainly didn’t really suit my dainty soju glass which was overpowered by the plate!
The flavours of the vegetables in the soup were crisp and fresh. But the choice of serving dish over-the-top. Although having said that, it looks nice in the picture!
The next appetiser was a lettuce and tomato salad with fried slices of lotus. The dressing was a refreshing citrus and oil combination, the lotus crispy and tasty, but some of the lettuce was chunky and slightly bitter.
And that’s when the first major problem occurred … with the service …We were being served in ‘western style’ where the courses come out one after the other preferably with a small break between each one. But this meant that the waitresses were, I felt, hovering over us waiting to leap up and grab our plates the second our cutlery hit our empty plates. In fact they were in such a rush that they took Mr Kim’s empty salad plate away while I was still eating and brought him his next course – soup. Then, as I was clearly taking too long to eat my salad (I eat slowly), they brought my soup to the table creating a kind of conveyor belt of food in front of me. At that point I asked the waitress to slow down!
Since I worked in a restaurant on and off for 10 years, mainly while I was a student, I want to empathise with waitresses. And I know there’s an art to getting the timing right when serving courses. But I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortably rushed and I longed for the usual style of service that we’re used to when the dishes are served all at once or just as they are ready – not in formal courses.
The flavour of the ginseng and chicken soup was good though. Although the portion was, again, egg-cup tiny.
The next dish was BY FAR my favourite course of the meal: fried flat fish with sambap rice wrapped in seaweed. The fish was beautifully cooked so that the bones were also edible. The delicate kim seaweed together with the rice had a mildly sweet as well as salty flavour. Really good, looked great too.
BUT it was very difficult to eat. First I tried picking the whole thing up with my chopsticks and taking bites out of it, then I copied Mr Kim and just picked it up with my fingers and attacked it as though it were a (very tiny) chicken drum stick. I think it would be impossible to eat with a knife and fork although I did not attempt to do this.
For the main course Mr Kim chose the grilled yellow corvina fish set served with white rice and green tea. (the white thing in the dish on the tray is a wet towel for wiping hands not a piece of daikon radish).
I chose the tofu steak set. After all the tiny courses so far I was presented with this rather huge plate of tofu steak. I didn’t enjoy it at all. The presentation was good although there was so much food on the plate that it put me off. (I know I sound like a moaner – first the dishes are too small and now they are too big! Some people are never happy 😕 )
The tofu was ok – deep fried and soft, not crispy. But the cheonggukjang 청국장 sauce with mushrooms were really bland. Or perhaps I should say, the sauce wasn’t as tasty as I was expecting. Cheonggukjang usually has a very potent smelly fermented bean flavour and I can smell the dish as it comes towards me across the restaurant! I like that.
But perhaps I just don’t have a sensitive enough palette to appreciate this dish. Or maybe I have simply become accustomed to the flavours of cheap shikdang restaurants! 😮 Recently I went to a presentation on Korean food and how it has changed over the years. One of the points made was that Korean food has become much spicier – it didn’t use to be very spicy. And I guess along with more chilli comes other stronger flavours too. So perhaps historically Korean dishes used more subtle flavours than generally used today. But still, I would have preferred half the amount of food on my plate with twice the flavour.
As soon as the plate was put down in front of me I knew there was a problem as I couldn’t smell any smelly beans. (it has been said that cheonggukjang smells like ‘poo’ – in a good way of course 😉 ) I ended up just ploughing through the meal wanting to get to the end. The prawn was tasty.
The final dish was ice cream and we were back to the pasta bowls. It was served with some rice cakes that melted in my mouth and some sticky chewy rice cakes with jujube. It was nice but by this point my mood had become even worse thanks to a young couple who turned up with a toddler and sat on the next table. The parents clearly wanted to keep the child quiet so they gave him some animation to watch on a smart phone so that they could eat their food in peace. The animation worked really well at keeping the child quiet and he sat there mesmerised by the flashing lights and crazy antics in his cartoon. We, however, had to put up with the noise from the phone. 😈
So the meal and the atmosphere left me disappointed. Toned down Korea flavours served in a kind of western style did not work for me. At all. If we were sitting in a regular restaurant which is fairly noisy anyway, I wouldn’t complain about children and noisy smart phones. It happens all the time. But in a supposedly more upmarket (certainly more expensive) restaurant I felt less tolerant. And I left feeling very FRUSTRATED.
I need to calm down. So here’s a picture of a tree. Breathe…