Andrew Zimmerman, chef of Sepia (hi Sepia friends!), recently wrote an article about the joys of eating alone. He waxes poetically about a perfect sausage, some strong mustard, sauerkraut and a cold beer. That is a perfect meal, and one better not shared. This post is about another perfect meal, also eaten alone, but there’s one big difference:
Chef Zimmerman’s meal isn’t brought to you by a brutal totalitarian regime known for nuclear missiles and prison camps.
Pyongyang Restaurant isn’t your typical restaurant chain. It’s operated by Room 39, the North Korean government agency better known for Superdollars, the counterfeit hundred dollar bills so good they’re actually BETTER than the originals. It’s staffed by an array of gorgeous, multitalented North Korean women dressed like flight attendants. The upstairs VIP rooms are probably bugged. It’s like being in a spy movie. I spent the whole meal waiting for a giant North Korean weightlifter to throw James Bond out of a second floor window. I was ready for that. I wasn’t ready for the food though.
“Chinese food” in America is a bastardized take on Cantonese. “Mexican food” is the food of the northerners; “Thai food” is the cuisine of the south. I had never paused to consider the regionality of Korean cuisine until reading a Vice article about a North Korean restaurant in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh location of this same chain. The article mentioned how the employees are basically enslaved, kept on the premises at all times, with 50-90% of tips garnished by the regime. It covered how the servers are trained to fill South Korean businessmen with alcohol and then pry state secrets out of them. Annoyingly, it barely mentioned the food at all. I needed to know about the food.
I showed up promptly at 7 pm and was shown to a table. The furniture and tableware all had a nice weight, everything felt of impeccable quality. I ordered tea, fried dumplings, the Pyongyang Cold Noodles and a stone bowl of Al Bap, a cousin of Bibim Bap where the egg and meat are replaced with heaps of flying fish roe.
First up was the banchan, the array of small plates filled with pickles and preserved delights. My selection was shrimp chips, lightly sweetened boneless anchovies, daikon radish, some marinated greens, plain cucumbers with a funky fish paste reminiscent of peanut butter and a large bowl of napa kimchi in a perfectly balanced broth spiked with cilantro and scallion. All of the banchan was delicious.
The dumplings showed up next, crispy side up, covered in a light coating of chile oil, with edible flower and cucumber garnish in the middle. A pork filling heavy on the kimchi and a nicely balanced dipping sauce made these irresistible. There had to be a dozen or more in the order, and I stopped myself with four left on the plate to insure that I’d have room for the next two courses. I spent the rest of the meal staring at those four delicious dumplings.
As I was enjoying my dumplings, the entertainment started. The servers took turns playing something like eight different musical instruments, singing and dancing. My favorite was the dancing, a two person dance with a puppet and puppeteer theme. It reminded me of a cross between japanese geisha and hip hop popping and locking. All of the entertainment was surprisingly good, but a few of the singers were unbelievably talented.
Both the noodles and the rice dish came at the same time. The rice came with a clear broth that I was instructed to eat after finishing the rice. The noodles came with all their garnishes beautifully arranged on top, only to be pushed aside as the noodles were cut with a pair of scissors. These dishes were not as boldly flavored as the dumplings but were still rather tasty.
The noodles, which I love to get at Chicago’s Da Rae Jung, are subtle, they’re soul food. They’re more about texture than flavor, the contrast of the cold buckwheat noodle with the boiled pork slices, the chicken meat, the apple and kimchi and all of the other garnishes I couldn’t identify. The rice dish is also about texture, the intermingling of the flying fish roe with the soft rice inside the bowl and the crispy rice on the edges. More pickled vegetables balanced this dish and kept it interesting. The broth served alongside was rich in texture but subtle in flavor, well balanced, a nice finish. Dessert was a slice of watermelon bursting with flavor unmatched by American produce. With a focus on meat, seafood, chili and fermented things, well made Korean food always leaves me satisfied.
This brings me to the great moral dilemma of this restaurant. I wasn’t able to identify a distinct North Korean cuisine, but I did have a truly great meal. A friend declined to join me based on not wanting to give the PDRK any of her money or support. I can make a moral exception for one visit, for the opportunity to see a culture unknown in my home country and the experience as a whole. Now, having been, I feel great about it. I’m just not ethically comfortable with returning, which is really disappointing considering how many tasty things I saw on other tables.