Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Restaurant Review: Temple Cuisine at Balwoo (Seoul, Korea)

Herro! I had planned a cute little outfit post for today, but the relentless downpour and occasional thunder&lightning literally rained on my plans. Instead, I thought I'd do a restaurant review of one of my favorite places in Seoul. 

Koreas today identify themselves as relatively unreligious, but many continue to observe traditional Buddhist and Confucian philosophies that are well embedded into Korean culture. Buddhist temples dot the urban landscape of Seoul, and Templestay (staying overnight at a temple to experience life as a monk) has become one of the top list of things to do while in Seoul for many tourists. In Insadong, nestled in the same building as the official TempleStay a the TempleStay Information Center is a traditional temple restaurant called "Balwoo/Baru Gongyang (발우공양)", which is literally translated to "monastic formal meal".

Operated by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, this restaurant specializes in traditional temple food, each carefully handmade by Buddhist practioners. The completely vegan courses are a modern take on traditional Buddhist temple meals, and utilizes a plethora of roots, herbs, and flavor-packing Korean spices to make you temporarily forget that you're not eating meat. 

The five-story building that houses the Templestay Information Center as well as the Balwoo Gongyang restaurant. 

This photo is the first thing that greets you when you enter the restaurant: Richard Gere was here

They offer three pre-fixed seasonal course menus, in ascending order of 10, 12, and 15-course meals. I've had all three in the many times I've visited this restaurant. One of my ultimate favorite is a "bulgogi" dish made of beans that has the same texture of meat. It's only available in the 15-course menu, which runs 53,000 KRW. However, every time I order the 15-course menu, I always eat roughly 1/3 of it and then feel terribly guilty as leaving food uneaten flies in the face of what the Buddhists believe, which is every kernel of rice should be consumed and not wasted. Thus, I've started to order the 10-course menu, even though I also never finish this one as well. The 10-course menu runs at 25,000 KRW per person.

I am obsessed with wet towelettes, and luckily for my germaphobic tendencies, Korean restaurants always give you wet towelettes before the start of every meal. I only came to appreciate this when I went to Europe and the waitstaff would look at me blankly when I asked for wet towelettes. 

I love their cold tea that they serve as water. It has a slight hint of something herb-like, but I couldn't identify it because it was so subtle. 

The first course was a seasonal cold noodle made of a vegetable in a chilled, milky perilla seed soup with sliced cucumbers, sesame seeds, and a cherry tomato half. 

Second course: a wild "deodeok" root (더덕샐러드) mixed with seasonal green vegetables served with pine nut dressing. This time, I had a slice of watermelon in my salad that I hadn't seen before. It added a sweet, crisp texture to the salad. 

The salad on the handmade plate. 

The interior has very clean lines with light-colored woods and windows that allow a lot of natural light into the restaurant, which is perfect for taking photos!

Third course: three different types of Korean-style small pancakes (삼색전)stuffed with tofu (yellow), pumpkin (green), and Korean red pepper paste. You get one flavor type per person.

Looks meager but you'll be thanking the portion size at about course number 7.

Fourth course: 계정혜삼합/dumplings with 3 different types of tofu and vegetables, tofu squares with salted pickled herbs, and rice wrapped in cucumber. 

The dumpling is one of those dishes that totally fool your mouth into thinking you're eating meat. I could have sworn this had minced beef in it but upon open surgery realized that it, indeed, did not. 

Fifth course: Mushrooms and vegetables (버섯강정) lightly deep-fried and tossed in a Korean chili paste sauce, with toasted sunflowers sprinkled over. This tastes like fried chicken to a certain extent. The mushroom texture really fools you into thinking "this is a juicy piece of chicken thigh".

Sixth course: Perilla seeds soup (들깨탕) with tofu, radishes, and wild greens topping. This is chilled for summertime consumption. My mum goes wild for this dish every time. 

Seventh course: Ban-chan (반찬), or Korean side dishes, are amped up here. Temple kimchi (which my mum, a connoisseur of these sorts of things, swears is excellent) in the center, and then clockwise from top left: fermented salty tofu (my fave!!!), bamboo salt-pickled herbs aged 1 year in the Kumsu Temple, bean sprouts, mountain plants mixed with sesame seeds, black beans salted in soy sauce, and pickled balloon flower.

Eighth course: Double-steamed sticky rice (연잎밥) with gingko, jujube, chestnut, black wild sesame wrapped in wild lotus leaves. The rice absorbs the essences of the wild nuts as it's steamed, so the result is a fragrant sticky white rice. 

Ninth course: Soup (국) made from Kumsu Temple's homemade bean paste, tofu, and seasonal wild vegetables. Definitely one of my favorite soups, this is hearty and flavorful without weighing you down like a stew.

An alternative that they've brought for the summer season is cold cult green tea noodles with chilled seasonal vegetables and Korean red pepper paste (냉면). If you opt for this, you will not get the sticky rice NOR the soup (eighth and ninth courses).

This women fascinates me every time. She goes to all the shoes strewn along the aisle and rearranges them neatly with what can only be described as a shoe-picker-upper device. I can't believe someone thought "this is a marketable invention" and mass-produced it.

Tenth course: Dessert comes in the form of beautifully dried potato, orange, lotus, and various other chips. The salty chips I find not so yummy as a dessert, but the orange slice and the next part of dessert totally makes up for it:

Sujeonggwa (수정과)!!! If you know me, you know I am OBSESSED with this drink. It's a non-alcoholic cinnamon punch that is a Korean specialty, and I could seriously drink 30 cups of these in one go.

Bottoms up! When chilled, this is really THE perfect summer drink.

I think I'll do a recipe of sujeonggwa soon on the blog!

Some people may find the food a bit under-seasoned because they don't use garlic, onions, meats, and have a light hand in the salt, but it only allows the actual food to shine through. If you're used to a lot of fast food and MSG, everything here will taste like cardboard. If you want a unique, cruelty-free meal that will not only satisfy your interest in vegan temple food but allow you to leave the restaurant feeling pretty darn awesome, come to Balwoo. It's definitely a must on your list of places to try in Seoul. 

Balwoo/Baru Gongyang (발우공양)
Prices start at 25,000 KRW for a 10-course meal.
Set lunch times are 11:40AM-1:20PM (first seating), and 1:30PM-3PM (second seating). Dinner is set from 6PM-8:50PM.
Reservations are absolutely recommended- they almost always fill all their seatings.
+82 2 2031-2081
71 Gyeonji-dong Jongno-gu
Seoul, South Korea 110-170

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