Seoul was the last stop on our 3 week honeymoon, but it was by far the most eye-opening. We loved Japan and Thailand also - and really, who doesn't- but those are two of the most popular suggestions for travelers (couples and singles alike). South Korea on the other hand, gets far less publicity, at least anecdotally. But Seoul's fish market, Noryangjin, is more tourist friendly than Tsukiji in Tokyo (I wrote about my Japan experience here). The food, readily available from street stalls and tableclothed restaurants alike, extends beyond the famous barbecue, though of course the meat is excellent. And there are diverse neighborhoods to explore, including Myeongdong, home to shopping and the famous beauty products, Namdaemun, full of culture and history, and Gangnam (yes, like the song) which is really Seoul at its brightest.
The itamae at Juku is Kazuo Yoshida, a well-known figure in the NYC sushi world from his previous stints at 1or8 in Brooklyn and Jewel Bako and Hasaki in the east village. Yoshida doesn't serve everyone, but he is omnipresent behind the counter and is as effervescent as any sushi chef that you'll come across. He salts o toro nigiri from 5 feet above and apparently he was salt bae before before salt bae was a thing (first, second and last time I use the phrase "salt bae". I promise).
Yoshida's menu was simple enough that even my aging brain could understand: $80 for 12 pieces, or $120 for 15 pieces and a handroll. We chose the latter, partly because we were hungry but also because the tane (topping on the nigiri) are of a higher class. Choose whatever you feel comfortable with; Yoshida's waza (his technique) makes anything delicious.
L t R: O-toro, Botan Ebi, Kinmedai
It's no accident that Juku's space is so visually appealing. One of Yoshida's partners is Max Levai, who apparently is pretty big in the art world (whatever that means). The sushi counter is surrounded by bright light and beautiful pictures, a nice contrast to the dark and bare milieu - yes I used that word - of the hallway leading in. Service is attentive but not overbearing, though certain parts of the sushi bar are virtually inaccessible by staff once customers are seated. Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Juku's surroundings, an area just outside the heart of New York's famous Chinatown. If you haven't been, but are a fan of architecture, culture, cuisine or history, give it a try.
Sayori | Halfbeak
But let's bring this back to sushi, since I assume that's why you're here. Kioku, the sushi bar in the Four Seasons Seoul, didn't exactly scream "EXCELLENT SUSHIYA". No one wants to judge a book by its cover, but great odin's raven do hotel restaurants have a reputation for being gigantic tourist traps. And to be honest, it's probably deserved: their appeal is based on convenience rather than quality. But Kioku is different. It takes its cuisine exceptionally seriously, a byproduct of its Itamae (head chef/sushi boss) Sawada Kazumi and his almost 25 years of experience. Sawada-san cut his bones (pun sort of intended) first in Japan and more recently in China, in both the Kaiseki and Omakase worlds. Kaiseki, the traditional tea meal colloquially used for an ingredients focused tasting menu, has influence on the downstairs dining room. For this review, I'll be focusing on the omakase, served upstairs behind a sleek sushi counter by Sawada himself.
Seoul, RoK. Four Seasons Hotel.
$100+. A la carte and omakase.
Date of visit: November 16, 2016
Regardless of which omakase option you ultimately select, Yoshida clearly has a flair for taking risks with traditional ingredients while still coloring inside the lines. Consider the ma-aji (horse mackerel) nigiri to the right. It's uncommon but not that unique to serve it aji-tataki style, aka chopped and diced. But Yoshida deviates from the standard approach, substituting sesame seeds for ginger, green onion for chives and eschewing the gunkan style (nori wrapped around the outside). The result is unpredictably delicious.
Yoshida also magnifies his o-toro; sure, the double decker has been tried before (by Ichimura, no less), but you know what hasn't? 7 day aged bottom, 0 day aged top (see below). And no, that doesn't mean the backpack Maguro (tuna) was caught that morning; the day count starts when it's received at the sushiya.
Other hits include the Botan Ebi (with crumbled tamago), Kinmedai (Goldeneye Snapper) and Uni (Sea Urchin), which - if asked - Yoshida will include as part of a 5 varietal, uni tasting. My personal favorite was actually the Sayori (halfbeak), prepared more traditionally by folding the white fish into a horseshoe shape and layered with Shoyu soy sauce rather than ginger. Sayori is an acquired taste, but try Yoshida's if you go to Juku.
Top: Golden Yellowtail Bottom: Anago, Uni.
The Republic of Korea - or South Korea to most of the world - has occupied significant real estate in my brain over the past year. First, it was Okja, a Netflix move masquerading as an advert for Veganism, set primarily in the beautiful countryside of the Gangwon province. Next, the Winter Olympics, sent straight from the rugged hills of Pyeongchang to interrupt my beauty sleep on the eastern seaboard. But it was Black Panther, with an incredibly filmed scene from beautiful Busan, that finally triggered the realization that I should probably write a bit about my South Korea experience from 2016 (it's currently 2018 for the crazies that like to track my procrastination).
Sea Urchin | Uni
A rare miss - at least for me - was the hotate (scallop), which was succulent all by itself without the Peruvian rock salt that masked one of sushi's most unique flavors. For many of you, raw scallop is a tough taste and some extra enhancement is welcome. Like everything in sushi (and life), it all comes down to personal preference.
King Salmon | Sake
Aji-Tataki | Horse Mackerel