Thursday, January 07, 2016

déçu

A new restaurant had opened up in Daechi-dong, the neighborhood where I work, late last year. It's called Shawn's American Grill, and I could see by the façade that it was going to be somewhat expensive, somewhat high-end dining. For lunch today, riding high from my minor victory at work yesterday, I decided to go to Shawn's to check it out.

A well-dressed greeter (the whole staff was in suits or formal dresses) was standing next to the electric sliding door when I walked down the tasteful outdoor steps to the restaurant's entrance. He bowed and gestured for me to come on in; I told him I was alone. He handed me over to a dignified-looking young man who spoke to me in English. Turned out the young man was a gyopo from America; he claimed to be more comfortable speaking in English than speaking in Korean, but since our exchange began in Korean, I thought he spoke the language just fine. He led me to a table, got me settled in, then took my order. Everything on the menu was expensive; I ordered garlic bread as an appetizer, the Shawn's Special Pizza as the main course, and chocolate mousse for dessert. No drink—I was fine with water, on the assumption that there would be refills. My host asked me whether I wanted all the food at the same time; I asked him to bring the items out one at a time. It seemed a bizarre question, but I'm glad he asked: many Korean restaurants that sell Western-style food often make the mistake of bringing everything to the table at once, thus forcing you either to rush through your meal before everything gets cold, or to eat slowly, only to arrive at a cold main dish.

Shawn's ambiance seemed American enough: the tables were of heavy, polished wood; the chairs were sturdy and large; the place had weight to it, like an American restaurant. A heater overhead blasted heat directly down at me, which was a bit uncomfortable, but I decided to tough it out instead of moving to another location—especially after I looked up and saw dozens of pipes all blasting downward. The garlic bread, when it arrived, was thankfully unsugared. Koreans normally love to eat their garlic bread sweetened. Sugary garlic bread isn't horrible, but it can get cloying after a while. My garlic bread was quite good... and it turned out to be, unfortunately, the best part of the meal.

The pizza came out; it looked and smelled delicious. The Shawn's Special was the restaurant's version of a thin-crust supreme pizza; knowing this, I specifically asked for no onions (Koreans, God bless them, will onion up every type of Western food if you let them), and the kitchen obliged. When I bit into the pizza, though, I knew I was going to be disappointed: as good as the thing smelled, it was watery and flavorless. I ate the pizza, anyway, given that I'd already committed to eating it and I'm not one of those assholes who create drama in a restaurant by loudly complaining about the food and ordering it sent back. The meal wasn't bad; it was just depressingly boring. As I mentally analyzed the problem, I concluded that there were two major factors at play here if we discounted the cheese: the fresh vegetables and the meat toppings.

Fresh vegetables on a pizza are something of a risk if you don't bake the pizza long and/or hot enough to cook out some of the vegetables' natural water content. My pizza had mushrooms, green peppers, and minced tomatoes on it; the latter two ingredients (I guess a tomato is technically a fruit) contained a lot of water, and while the pizza was well cooked on the bottom, it obviously hadn't been cooked sufficiently on the top. In the States, a wood-fired brick oven normally burns at a temperature of around 700º to 800º Fahrenheit. After 3-5 minutes, any vegetables on the pizza's surface will have lost most of their moisture, which isn't a bad thing. The consumer of the pizza wants to encounter moisture in the form of oil from the cheese and the meat, not water from the vegetables, because water dilutes flavor.

The meat was the other issue. Shawn's had obviously used Korean meats, and Korean versions of Western sausage are almost all too bland for my taste. (They're also the wrong texture, but that's a rant for a different day.) So with the watery vegetables dousing what little flavor was coming from the meat, there was little for me to taste, but a lot for me to chew on. The pizza's crust was nice, at least.

I've had this sort of bland pizza before, from Korean delivery. It's a chronic problem in Korea, and it's probably why most Western expats prefer to order pizzas from American chains like Domino's, Pizza Hut, and Papa John's (yes, there's Papa John's in Korea). Such pizzas aren't the best possible ones, but they're far more flavorful than the equivalent Korean product.

After slaughtering my pizza, I waited for my chocolate mousse. And waited. And waited. Nothing came. I flipped open the elegant leather billfold to look at my bill... and discovered that the mousse wasn't even on the receipt: it had never been rung up. Well, well, gyopo from America—where the hell was your brain, eh? I had texted my boss to say I'd be late in coming back from lunch because I was waiting for dessert. In disgust, I gathered my things and left my table. I never saw the gyopo guy again.

The Korean gentleman who rang up my bill and processed my credit card (not a gyopo this time) frowned when he saw me walking toward the cash register. "What about your chocolate mousse?" he asked. "Don't you want it?" I admired this guy's sharp situational awareness: he, at least, knew what I had ordered, even though he hadn't been the one to take my order. But it was too late to do anything about anything, so I shook my head and said, "The mousse isn't even on the bill." He rang me up and asked me to sign up as a member of Shawn's so I could receive ten-percent discounts in the future. I indulged him just so he wouldn't feel bad, but I knew I'd never be coming back to Shawn's.

All in all, a very disappointing experience. Shawn's is yet another Korean restaurant that apes the Western style but doesn't understand that the devil is in the details. It's not enough to serve mediocre Western food for jacked-up prices, even if the ambiance isn't so bad: you've got to have better control over the product, and in the culinary world, that means—always and forever—using good goddamn ingredients. Even the world's shittiest cook can produce something more or less palatable if good ingredients are his point of departure.

Ah, well. I was suckered again. Live and learn.

Oh, yeah, and there was this: I never got my water refilled.


_

14 comments:

John (I'm not a robot) said...

A friend of mine just opened a pizza place in Itaewon (actually right across the street from Manimals). It's NY style and you will be happy to know he imports his ingredients. Makes for a pricey, but delicious, pizza. Let's go!

Kevin Kim said...

We're there, dude.

Charles said...

NY-style pizza in Seoul? How would you guys feel about company?

Alternatively, Kevin, you could do a test run and we could hit it at a later date if three is a crowd.

Kevin Kim said...

Charles,

I'm into three-ways if John is. He's a laid-back, affable fellow, so I'm sure I can speak for him in saying that three would not be a crowd.

Let's use this comment thread as a convenient way of arranging a date and time to meet. For me, if we meet on a weekday, it'd have to be well after 7PM; I get off work at 6:30PM.

And at the risk of sounding stupider than usual, I have to ask: have you ever met John before? I'm racking my brains and trying to remember whether you have.

John (I'm not a robot) said...

I only know Charles through your blog and comments. But damn, I can't remember the last time someone suggested a 3-some! You only live once! I fly out on Wednesday, so if you want to do a weekday I might suggest Tuesday evening.

He makes his dough fresh every morning and serves until it runs out. Once we have agreed on a date/time I'll let him know we are coming so he can hold our dough (which I suppose he'll do after we pay as well). I can also do Sunday. I know he opens for lunch most days, but I'll confirm his hours if that is an option y'all want to consider...

I went to his soft opening and really enjoyed my pie. Now, he only serves craft beer which I suppose Charles would approve of. Me, I like my OB but I won't eat pizza without a beer to wash it down. I don't mind splurging if I'm in good company.

Charles said...

Like John said, we know each other through the Hairy Chasms (which sounds very wrong). I have always wanted to get together with you guys, though.

My schedule for the next few days is going to be a bit bonkers, as I have a dissertation defense to attend (chair, actually) on Monday evening, and a department meeting on Tuesday evening. But I don't think there is anything going on after the meeting on Tuesday dinner-wise, so I should be able to make a 19:30 dinner time. That would actually be the earliest day I could swing this, though, as I'll be spending most of my time through Monday prepping for the defense and the meeting.

If it turns out that there is a better time for you guys (John, when you say you're flying out on Wednesday, I'm not sure if that means you won't be around for a while...), though, don't let me hold you back.

Kevin Kim said...

Meeting Tuesday evening, 7:30PM, in Itaewon works for me. Hamilton lobby?

John won't be around for a while: he's flying out to be with friends in Cambodia. You can share your own Cambodian experiences with John before he leaves.

John John McCrarey said...

Tuesday works.

Bratfink said...

Is there anything worse than tasteless food when you had such high hopes? I think not.

I hope you 3 have a great time! And I hope the food is as good as the company! xoxox

John (I'm not a robot) said...

Interestingly, as I was stumbling home last night I ran into Eugene, the owner of Gino's NY Pizza. I told him I was bringing a couple of authentic foodies to his place Tuesday evening and he'd best be prepared to present his best work. He sounded up for the challenge.

Also, he told me he had brought in some Cass beer for uncouth folks like me. So, I can drink cheap beer and eat expensive pizza which suits me just fine. Charles can enjoy the good stuff.

Looking forward to seeing you!

Charles said...

OK, Tuesday 7:30 should give me plenty of time. I can't see my meeting going past 6:00, let alone 6:30. When you say Hamilton lobby, though, do you mean inside the hotel, or in front of it? I don't think I've ever actually been in the hotel.

And it would be great to talk about Cambodia. I had a good time there.

John (I'm not a robot) said...

Looking forward to meeting you Charles and getting the inside scoop on Cambodia...

Kevin, I'll enjoy seeing you as well...

Kevin Kim said...

Charles,

I wouldn't want anyone to stand out in the cold, so by "lobby," I mean the lobby's interior.

Charles said...

Ah, OK. So I'll get to see the hotel lobby for the first time. (Or are you talking about the shops that are there? It's actually been a while since I've been in that immediate area.)

John: Looking forward to meeting you as well!