13 (Sun) November 2011
at Samcheonggak (삼청각)
-Seongbuk, Seongbuk, Seoul, Republic of Korea-
with W and DJ, the In-Laws
Samcheonggak (삼청각) is a Korean restaurant. Landmark. On a sprawling compound, it comprises a gargantuan main building and several independent houses for private parties. Back in the day, it used to be a tea house, the kind where women in various modes of dress/undress served food and drinks and additional goodies to affluent male customers. But alas, it is now strictly a restaurant, specializing in banquet-type hanjeongsik meals for special occasions, like birthdays, and the women are fully clad in severe black suits.
All in all, perhaps the most expansive dining establishment that I’ve ever encountered.
The occasion was the 1st birthday of my niece, the daughter of W’s brother. Instead of hosting a large gathering at a buffet or other mass venue, which is common for such functions, the parents chose to have a small family get-together, which is gradually gaining favor as a way of celebrating the day in peace without burdening everyone involved, especially the kid.
Because I am an only child, and W has only 1 sibling, who is adamant on having only 1 child, M is at this point likely to be the only technical niece that I will ever have. (I do have several cousins once removed (children of my cousins), who are like my nieces and nephews.)
Happy Birthday, M!
Incheong Sura is a banquet meal at Samcheonggak. Hanjeongsik (table d’hôte) comprising 13 dishes, served in courses. The name derives from “Incheong (人淸),” the name of a spirit worshipped in the Joseon era, and “sura,” which refers to a king’s feast. 150,000 won per head.
Sinseollo (신선로) is a Korean dish. A prime example of court cuisine, it consists of numerous ingredients prized for taste and rarity and visual appeal and nutritional value, such as beef, abalone, pine mushrooms, and ginko nuts. The name of the dish derives from the eponymous donut-shaped brass hot pot in which it’s customarily served, usually with a heat source underneath to keep it at a steady bubble in the style of jeongol (전골) (hotpot). According to legend, a political exile during the Joseon Dynasty of the 15th century fled to the mountains and stayed there, preparing his meals in a single cooking vessel, until he died and became a mountain spirit: “sinseon” = mountain spirit, “ro” = “pot.” The dish is also referred to as “yeolguja tang” (열구자탕) and “yeolguji” (열구지) (etymologies withheld, for now). Anyway, the broth is based on a simple vegetable stock and starts off somewhat bland but continues to deepen as it simmers to release the flavors of the ingredients. Still, the dish is more about the solids than the soup. Unlike other examples of royal foods, bibimbap being the most obvious, sinseollo never made it mainstream and remains a specialty dish found in fancy restaurants offering banquet-type meals and, for some reason, the occasional restaurant serving northern fare.
Unfortunately, the meal was rather mediocre. The number of dishes aside, the variety and quality left much to be desired. For example, dishes #5, #8, and #13 were essentially the same thing – beef in sweet garlic-soy marinade – and the meat was tough. The sinseollo was a paltry representation of what the dish should be, both in appearance and taste. Perhaps a spread like this was special back in Joseon, but not really today. We’ve all had better versions of the individual dishes, so putting lesser versions together into a single meal isn’t impressing anyone. The food was worth 30,000 won, presumably the rest for renting the private dining room.
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