The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, 29 April 2010

"Palace Dining" @ Hwasung Byolgwan, Suwon (Korea)

I didn't have high expectations for the only proper restaurant in the vicinity of the Hwaseong Hanggeung Palace (that we could see), which also claimed to serve royal Korean cuisine. I mean, surely a restaurant like this that has dining monopoly over majority of the visitors who visits Hwaseong Hanggeung must serve overpriced dishes to hungry diners like us, lured in by the fantasy to dine like a king. Well, fortunately for us, the food at Hwasung Byeolgwan was actually pretty good. Soon after arriving at Hwaseong Palace (not the fortress as originally intended), we decided to tackle the area after filling our empty bellies, and headed towards the only (Korean) restaurant in sight for an early lunch. The restaurant is located next to a big bell, a prominent feature on the other side of the main road running alongside the huge expansive space in front of the entrance to Hwaseong Hanggeung (where the Royal Guard ceremony took place later). It's a gorgeously decorated restaurant and the waitstaff wearing the traditional Korean outfits was a nice touch. The menu offering looked good, and dishes were apparently adapted from the historical records of the food served at the banquet held by King Jeongjo for his mother's 60th birthday. The prices looked reasonable, at least for the so-called royal palace cuisine.

We were served a seasoned noodles dish and a salad to munch on while waiting for our food to arrive. I really adore the idea of banchan (side dishes), and reckon that all restaurants everywhere should employ this idea of serving complimentary dishes. (Some restaurants already have the right idea by serving complimentary bread, but having a variety of small dishes definitely beats plain bread and butter.) Being lunch time, there were only two banchan, but I'm sure it's standard practice everywhere in Korea to serve eight or more banchan for dinner time like the ones we ate during our first meal in Seoul.

Although it was already our third day in Seoul, we'd yet to eat bibimbap, one of the most representative dishes of the Korean cuisine. Hwasung Byeolgwan was offering a simple Dolsot Bibimbap of beef mince, a raw egg and vegetables served atop steamed rice inside a hot stone pot, and we got an order of it. It was quite average, an affordable one-dish meal perfect for lunch. I just love stirring through the bowl to mix all the ingredients together, and savouring the crunchy brown crust of rice stuck on the bottom of the hot pot. Normal bibimbap is pretty easy to make at home, so when I do have bibimbap outside, it's almost always the dolsot (hot stone pot) version.

For a second dish, we wanted something more substantial protein-wise. I'd heard that Suwon is famous for its beef galbi (ribs), so naturally we had to get a galbi dish. We ordered the Galbi-jjim (beef rib stew), and it was delicious! I didn't expect much because I am not a red-meat person (and would go so far to say that I actually dislike the strong flavours and smell of red meat), but I really liked this stew. The stew was rich with bovine flavours that could only come from long slow-cooking of bone and flesh, and I enjoyed pulling the tender-braised flesh off the bone-in ribs, something that I miss doing in Japan where it is almost impossible to find bone-in meat. I was pleased to find red Chinese dates in the stew which no doubt added a certain sweetness to it. It was a huge serving, but we did manage to polish it off. That lunch kept us full for a long time that day.

Dolsot Bibimbap, and the delicious Galbi Stew:

While I wouldn't say we ate like royalty, this was a pretty good experience. If we had more time, we would have loved to try royal court cuisine, no doubt because we'd salivated over the gorgeous food presented in the Korean drama Dae Jang Geum. Perhaps next time if we ever find ourselves back in Korea.

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