There is something platitudinous about Korea.
It just isn’t that sophisticated. The Hallyu wave, once poised for success and global influence, has turned out to be one of the greatest anti-climaxes. Paved with amiable attentions, the state sought to sustain the momentum by nationalizing control of the Korean wave much to the chagrin of many countries – transforming auto-tuned bubblegum pop and the threadbare kimchi into tools of Korean nationalism. The cuisine, once marketed as balanced and influential, has found repeat favor only amongst Asian communities and Asianophiles. Food critics are finding that there’s not much more than kimchi, fried chicken, bibimbap, ramyeon and jajang – of which none are in fact, specifically unique to Korea. The wave is not all but dead, still firmly rooted in outposts like Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, but it has certainly since lost its worldwide appeal.
With a cuisine that possesses such sparse finesse, it doesn’t take long for individuals to become discerning. Gusttimo World group of restaurants’ Sarang, as I recalled on my previous visit, failed to make the mark. The menu was not privy to individuals who didn’t have at least a basic knowledge of what the cuisine was about. The attenuate, deliquesce flavors served as a mockery and hypocrisy of the authenticity that the restaurant was trying so hard to bring forward. When Gusttimo World realized that the convoluted concept wasn’t translating into sales, it brought in Executive Chef Jung Yung Yur to spearhead the restaurant’s new menu. YY, as he wants to be known, “escaped” to Singapore to free himself from the motherland’s bureaucracy. Instead of moving along the ranks with age as any white or blue-collar might expect, this rebel revolted against the system the only way he could – leave Korea. Rather than banking on authenticity, YY plans to take Sarang even more left field. The arrangement, an abridged menu with a cosmopolitan twist, unintentionally seeks to carve a way beyond the cuisine’s stereotype. It’s an expression of Seoul, the hotbed of interaction between cultures and how they rub their influence on the cuisine. The sparks seek to taint the heritage somewhat, but it might just be the spark to transform Korean cuisine into something less one-note and two-dimensional. While the potential implications for the culture is immense, for Gusttimo World, the change begets a more trivial question: are Singaporeans going to lap this up too?
Sarang’s lineup are creations of stunning excellence. Like the cast of Memoirs of A Geisha however, the reality is there’s an apparent divisive riff within the similarly decked out spread. There’s a dissenting visceral betrayal in the philosophy: the prime cut natural flavors of the succulent, evocative fillet of the Western-style Sarang Steak counteract harshly against the charcoal fired, gamey hardened chew of the rasher that is the Wine Samgyeopsal. The composition of the latter in itself never successfully complements the sweetness of the wine infused pork; the decimated jargon of the mushrooms’ intensity refuses to be repressed, leaving a bitter contrast that’s neither palatable nor put to good use. The Sarang Steak on the other hand, is more predisposed on its own, with the steamed vegetables well cooked and put together came well with the mash of potatoes. The offset is that the dish’s character is artlessly not of Korean descent, particularly when not paired together with the toned down Korean sauces. It however, demonstrates that when fine tuned, Korean sauces could potentially, in small doses, compliment steak. Although revered for its intensity and marbling, the pork belly in the Kimchi Jjim is brutally inundated and asphyxiated by the ubiquitous kimchi – it never stood any chance against the pungent condiment. But alas, such is the familiarity and commonplace that plagues Korean cuisine: to expect otherwise would be expecting the impossible.
The ambassador of Seoul ups the notch of the army stew into something that’s quite a bit more edible than its previous iteration. From an uninteresting dilute kimchi broth with spam, it has blossomed into a gourmet delight that isn’t unlike the famed budae jjigae, albeit with more ramyeon and less seasonal ingredients. Curiously, the streamlined menu clutters itself with six army stews. While each is named after different countries, there is virtually nothing that connects the name to its respective state. Rather, it’s a mere representative of the amount of ingredients – the Singaporean Army Stew only adds tofu to the kimchi ramyeon while the Korean Army Stew has the full works, with virtually no difference in pricing. It’s not difficult to imagine which would win more hearts.
It is the Kkori Gomtang that demonstrates Chef YY’s ability to restrain and pull back. Unlike the courses before, this one is peculiarly left as it is, uncorrupted by the fads that assault the capital. It is in the midst of cultural waves that the ox tail soup stands as a beacon to all Koreans as a pillar of identity. Perhaps the fact there’s a certain universal aspect about the comfort and heartiness about the rustic classic is symbolic…that some common ground can indeed, be found.