Sunday, August 07, 2011

Seoul Day

I finally left Ilsan (일산) on Saturday! It was a rather long and tiring day, but I didn't mind at all. I saw family that I hadn't seen (I still have a lot of family members I've yet to visit!), though I didn't take pictures of them (uh, I was busy taking pictures of food). I took the subway for the first time (this year) and managed to get home faster than expected. I had non-Asian food. I had four (!) cups of coffee, because my family is all about coffee.

So it started quite early in the morning (for me). Work starts at 10:00, which means that I tend to groggily wake up around 8:30 or 9:00. I am not a morning person, so this suits me just fine. Since my aunt wanted to trek out earlier than I start my workday, I resigned myself to a sleepless night and a jam-packed day.

My aunt came around 9:30, picked me up, and we were off to Gunpo (군포), where my great-aunt (이모 할머니- my maternal grandmother's younger sister) lives, in a rather spacious and quite lovely 19th floor apartment. (My mother gets along very well with my great-aunt, and they are very similar, more so than my mother and grandmother.) With three generations of women, it was a comfortably talkative afternoon.

Though Korea's a small country, it seems like it always takes at least an hour to get anywhere. I have no idea why that is, because we didn't really hit any traffic. Perhaps the roads are all curvy and longer than necessary? Whatever the case, we didn't get to my great-aunt's until about 11:30. (We had stopped at E-Mart first, to buy grapes and cherries- Koreans don't go anywhere empty-handed, especially to their families.)

My great-aunt is a former opera singer and the widow of a politician. As such, she has slightly different tastes from a typical Korean woman her age. A few of the things that come to mind when I think about her are pasta, cheese, and coffee. She's probably the only person in my family that makes and drinks espresso at home. She loves cheese, real cheese, because she's spent a lot of time in Europe and actually knows it. She knew and loved pasta long before it became a fad in Korea.
As soon as we got to her house, we had coffee. Really cute espresso cups, no? Not cups that I would personally have in my house (I like plain, plain, plain), but these were fun. My great-aunt also gave us macarons (not macaroons!), which she had discovered in France ages ago. She told me about the two French brands of macarons sold in Korea and imperiously stated that one was better than the other. (For some reason, I only remember the one that she said isn't as good, which is Fauchon.) I don't know why I didn't take a picture of the macarons, but they were lovely. (Those cherries in the photo above were the ones we got at E-Mart, and they were pretty dang good.)

Lunch was ordered in, because we were all hungry and with the sky threatening to pour, we didn't feel like leaving the house. Chinese-Korean, of course, consisting of jjajangmyeon (짜장면) and sweet-and-sour pork (탕수육). After lunch, another espresso with ddeok (or tteok (떡), Korean rice cakes) for dessert. Those rice cakes were really good- very dark green, indicating that a lot of mugwort (쑥) was in them, and filled with a variety of nuts and fruit. They weren't too sweet, but sweet enough to feel like dessert and somehow still feel healthy. A handful of cherries and the espresso ended our visit with my great-aunt.

My great-aunt, knowing how I love cheese (it's a trait shared by my great-aunt, my mother, my sister, and myself), commanded that was all go to Costco together, since she has a Costco card and she claims that there is good cheese to be had there. So off we went, driving right through a squall (소나기 in Korean- I love that word- sonagi) and arriving at Costco to realize that the place is PACKED.

It was insane. It was like a concert. Or a Saturday at Disneyland. Once we checked out, we realized that there was an enormous line to get on the elevator. Since we didn't have a shopping cart, we lucked out and skipped the line. It was a grim scene- add in the pushing and shoving that is typical of Koreans, and I was really, really happy to get out of there.

In my defense, this cheese isn't all mine. The mascarpone and the Swiss are my great-aunt's (she fondues at home!). But yes, I bought three types of cheese. Life without good cheese is tragic, let me tell you. The emmentaler and the raucher are actually from France and Switzerland, not a word of English on the packaging. I had to get the pepperjack, it's Tillamook and it made me think of home. I resisted a giant wheel of camembert and a round of brie. It took a lot of willpower.

That plastic-wrapped package on the very left is a cheesecake, which was purchased in anticipation of the next stop of the day. My uncle (삼촌- my mother's younger brother) lives in Seoul, not too far from my great-aunt, and we were off to his church (he's a pastor).

My uncle has four daughters, two of whom (the oldest two) lived with my parents for a while. They attended college in Cerritos and eventually got their own apartment, the first time they'd ever lived away from family (well, other than each other- so I guess the first time they lived away from adults in their family). Because they were in the States for a while (a couple years) and I saw them every weekend, I know them fairly well. They're only a little younger than me (three years and five years), so it's quite easy when we see each other, none of the usual awkwardness of "we're family but don't really know each other."

My aunt's navigation system took us through Itaewon (이태원), the "foreigner" neighborhood of Seoul. Sure enough, there were more signs in English than in Korean, and there were quite a few different types of restaurants crammed into a small space. (I saw a Greek place and had a sudden desire for feta cheese.) The picture above was just an interesting building that I snapped while in the car, waiting for a light. Turns out that it's a boutique hotel, cute.

We got to my uncle's church, where the fourth floor is his office. It's more like a summer camp- a big balcony, full of plants (my mother and my uncle both get their green thumbs from their father) and vegetables, a little kitchen, places to sit for at least twenty people, books everywhere, and even a piano. Little guppy-like fish inside the office, in large, clear tubs, and outside, in even bigger rubber tubs, feeding off flourishing water lilies. Vegetables that grow like weeds, my favorite being a group of delicate lettuce, frilly and speckled green and purple.
I don't know why I only took a picture of the sunflowers- there was a single morning glory that had refused to go back to sleep and was stubbornly unfurled, a few water lilies that hadn't wilted in the heat of the day, various flowers and plants. It had started to rain almost the second I stepped out onto the balcony, big, slow drops that seemed to fall reluctantly from the sky, and I beat a pretty hasty retreat back indoors.

We visited a while, eating peaches and grapes (there's always food involved, always) and then we kids said goodbye, as we were off to dinner. We were to meet another cousin (my mother's older brother's son) for dinner, so the three girls took two umbrellas (I took my cheese, too) and dashed for the bus.

We met at Shinsegae (신세계) Department Store. It's a very nice place, nicer (at least at first glance) than the Lotte Department Store next door to my house. The tenth floor consists of restaurants. I loved the aesthetics- all wood and white, nothing overly ornate, but clean without being spartan. We decided to go Italian and ended up at Il Cipriani Bistro. The vibe was decidedly un-Italian (or, I should say, un-American-Italian), but seemed like it would be okay.

We all ordered "course sets," but I only took pictures of my meal. Note the china- it's very Korean and not at all what I would have paired with Italian food, with the exception of the bread bowl and pasta bowl.

Different types of bread, which is normal. They even brought balsamic vinegar and olive oil (Koreans love butter with their bread), so I gave them points for that. Any points they had were immediately taken away when I noticed that there was steamed corn and potatoes in the (very cute) bread bowl. That's definitely Korean.

We got a bottle of Los Vascos, a Chilean wine. I generally like wine from Chile and Argentina, and since I was buying dinner, I picked the wine. Everyone ended up liking it, so it was a good call. The wine wasn't as expensive as I had thought it would be, which was a pleasant surprise.

Soup. It was weird. Grainy, not hot enough, and without any distinct flavor. I think it was ... potato? It wasn't creamy (Koreans don't usually like heavy cream, they think it's greasy), so it wasn't quite cream of potato soup, but I think that's what it wanted to be. I was disappointed, because the first course is usually very telling. (Side note- there are no Russet potatoes here. They only have waxy potatoes, and I find that Russets make better soup.)

The salad. It was supposedly a Caesar salad, but not really. First of all, there was tomato and grilled onion sitting on the plate. For garnish? I don't know, but that was weird. The dressing wasn't very strong. It didn't taste much of anchovy or black pepper, but was mostly creamy and cheesy. It was just an okay salad, and my expectations began to dwindle.

The pasta. Spaghetti in tomato sauce with eggplant. Surprisingly good sauce (though the eggplant was a little under-seasoned and overcooked), but the noodles were too soft and squishy. Way, way past al dente, which I was expecting, because Koreans like their noodles all bloated and overcooked. I like my pasta firm, probably undercooked. There were large cloves of barely-cooked garlic in the sauce, which was puzzling. I always though that Italians either cook their garlic down or, if it's going to be raw, mince the cloves. Despite my quibbles, a good dish.

The meat. They had some sort of stuffed chicken, but that sounded like it could go terribly wrong, so I went with the beef. They did a very nice medium rare (Koreans tend to eat steak and most beef cooked well done, which is a shame). The potato was really good, with a thin crisp on the outside and completely cooked through but not dry on the inside. The sauce was okay, a little bland. The waiter put a dollop of whole-grain mustard on my plate after he set it down. I have no idea what that was about. Is it supposed to be like the horseradish and prime rib combination? I didn't touch the mustard, the garlic, or the onion.

I forgot to take a picture of dessert and coffee. Dessert was called mango cake, but it was really like a mango mousse with a very, very thin (and dry) layer of cake at the bottom. Not bad, but not a cake. It came with a piece of pineapple and watermelon. The coffee was okay, but not great for an Italian place.

Not bad, overall, but nothing spectacular. For the same money, there is much better Italian food to be had in the States. However, for the same ambiance and service (never mind the food), it would have been at least twice the price in the States. It's discombobulating!

We parted ways around 10:00, I think, in the subway. The girls went off in the opposite direction, their subway having arrived almost as soon as we got to the platform. The boy cousin and I took the subway in the same direction. He was supposed to stay on the subway and keep going, but got off to make sure I found my transfer correctly and then he got back on the proper subway and left.

One transfer, two subways, 1300 won ($1.23), and about 50 minutes later, I was home. The subway station here is less than a block from my house. When Lotte Department Store is open, I can just go through the store to get home. (Their hours are appalling- they open at 10;30 but close at 8:00. What is what?!)

Though it was Saturday night and the subway was crowded, it was quiet and people were polite. A couple people were falling asleep, a girl was doing her make-up, some little kids were dancing impatiently, but most folks were on their phones, fiddling with them, listening to music, watching TV, and so on. (Yes, phones really work everywhere here, including underground in the subway- and they work so well that people can actually stream live TV. When is that going to happen in the US?)
I read an e-book on my iPhone until I felt a little motion sick (the subway's fine when it's moving, but pulling into and pulling away from the stations feels like some sort of demented horizontal elevator), then I watched my fellow passengers and guarded my bag of cheese (which felt like a load of bricks by this point), trying not to stab people with my umbrella.

That was my Saturday. Home before 11:00, which seemed early. Sunday, in comparison, was lazy and unproductive. The only things in my refrigerator right now are water, kimchi (I'm almost out!), and lots and lots of cheese, because I refused to go grocery shopping yesterday. (The pepperjack, for the record, is not as good as I had hoped / remembered. The emmentaler and raucher are amazing.)


william,  August 8, 2011 at 12:56 AM  

i hope you didn't have to pay for that cheese! that's the beauty of going shopping with older relatives; they pay for everything.

why eat in a dept store? dept store food is...okay at best. dept store restaurants are for people who want to be seen eating in a dept store restaurant.

sometimes i miss seoul. sometimes not.

also, i love that people hold onto their cellphones in subways. as if the cellphone is acting like a lifeline. that will never happen in the US. never. i cannot believe you have too pay $60/month for slow ass broadband in the states. that is total bullshit.

do i sound cranky today? enjoyed reading about your busy day. i keep telling the bf to open up a cheese shop, if only to target all the foreigners craving cheese. will he listen? no.

jeanny August 9, 2011 at 3:08 AM  

I had to fight to pay for lunch! Between my aunt and great-aunt, I rarely get to pay. I have an odd sense of guilt about it, but yes- my great-aunt bought me the cheese. I can't very well argue with a lady in her 80's!

We were lazy and decided to meet at the department store ... and then didn't leave. We're lame. (My cousins are lame- if I knew what was around the area, I would've picked something better!)

Seoul is okay. I'm not sure yet, I don't know it well enough. I really do not like MyeongDong, I know that much.

Koreans would die if they were cellphone-less. I love people that get their phones charged in restaurants and bars, that cracks me up.

Cell phone reception, by the way, is much MUCH better in Seoul than Ilsan. Lame.

Tell Dean to do it! I would go to Daegu to buy cheese. :)