Lonely Planet’s description of Insadong as “a gastronomic centre of excellence” is spot on.
The outside of this restaurant is so unassuming that I didn’t even think to snap a photo, nor do I now remember its name. As we walk up the cobblestoned pathway to the entrance, Lisa and I try to determine if they’re even open. We knock gently and then carefully pry open the weathered door to find a small Korean woman talking loudly into a cordless phone. I am thoroughly overwhelmed by the smell of fish. Words cannot adequately express how overwhelmed I am. To me, the scent is so offensive that I desperately contemplate running out the door. But Lisa is already removing her boots and the woman on the phone is beckoning us into a small dining room. I reluctantly follow suit, tugging off my boots and placing them on the shelf to my left. I side-step the kitchen and walk past large jars of pickled root and cabbage before finding my place on the floor at the low table across from Lisa. We are the only diners present.
Lisa explains that the restaurant must have once been a modest residential home, a hanok as it were, and she gestures towards the pickling pots as evidence of its humble composition. A thin paper wall separates the dining area from the kitchen where two cooks quarrel loudly with an angry child. The walls facing outside are made from packed mud and straw. They are burnt-orange in color but have been partly whitewashed on three sides of the room. The floor beneath me begins to warm pleasantly and I learn that this is the work of the ondol, or heating system; the ingenious segmentation of the foundation below. Burning piles of wood can be inserted into these spaces to selectively heat the desired areas of the house above.
Our host is still on the phone, pacing back and forth in front of our table, engrossed in conversation. She puts the receiver to her shoulder long enough to take Lisa’s order and then disappears into the kitchen. Lisa is graciously merciful when she orders for the both of us. I know she’s partial to the raw octopus and pickled crab of her countrymen but when I’m around she eats conservatively for my sake.
Neither of us anticipated what subsequently emerges from the kitchen. Piled high on so many platters, every manner of sea creature and pickled bit imaginable. The variety is astonishing, an assortment that Lisa will later refer to as “hardcore”. Twenty-one components presented individually on pearly white saucers. Lisa digs in but I’m distracted by a pungent odor to my right. It is the embodiment of the nebulous smell I encountered upon entering the restaurant. I follow my nose to the offending dish. It’s wet and shiny: a bulbous pile of raw squid, laced with seaweed and sitting in a pool of filmy sauce. I urgently beg Lisa to swap plates with me and she eagerly obliges, relocating the squid to her side of the table.
Now, breathing a bit easier, I relinquish myself to the meal. I begin, cautiously at first, to sample some of the more innocuous-looking options around the rim of the table. I start with the beef patty and am pleasantly surprised. Nothing scary about it, just delicious ground meat grilled to perfection with a spicy dipping sauce. Emboldened, I begin to circle my way into the center of the table. I encounter salty red kimchi, cubes of green acorn jelly, fried veggie pancakes, salty black seaweed and pickled red algae. There’s a boiling bowl of miso soup afloat with giant chunks of white tofu and wilted greens. I help myself generously to a large serving and then pause to have some rice.
The road gets trickier now. I have to ask Lisa to explain the remaining dishes and they are as daunting as I suspect. I approach the first: raw octopus tentacles soaked in salty brine. I breathe, commit, and then proceed. Success! Next is spicy crab. I use my teeth to break through the hard shell and suck out the meat from inside the thorax. Boom. Moving right along I reach the fried whole fish. Lisa shows me how to remove the connecting vein that borders the dorsal fin, exposing the meat inside which I then pull out using my chopsticks. There is reason to pause here. This dish is fantastic. It is crispy and sweet and it melts in my mouth.
I’m thoroughly satisfied and I decide to quit while I’m ahead. I leave the nefarious squid for Lisa to enjoy and gulp down some water. I also sip my green tea to help, I hope, aid my digestion. I feel as though I’ve just completed a monumental task like saving the princess or finishing a lengthy crossword puzzle. Upon exiting, the frigid clean air is my reward.