Indulge in the flavours of Korea at InSeoul and Ambrosia

“Donkas. Donkas. Donkas,” squeals my friend, bouncing up and down on her chair excitedly. The serious Korean businessmen sitting at the next table stop talking and look in our direction. “Shhh,” I mutter, embarrassed. Then, they begin to chuckle. We’re at InSeoul in Alwarpet, a Korean restaurant with the air of a college canteen. The lights are bright, the furnishing minimalistic and the notice board busy. I’m flipping through the hefty menu deciding what to eat. My friend is fixated on the Donkas. Fortunately, the menu features helpful pictures and descriptions of all the Korean dishes.

Unfortunately, they are out of Donkas. “You like them that much?” I ask sympathetically, as Ms. Donkas wilts sadly. “I have no idea what they are,” she shrugs. “I like the name.” For the record these are cutlets made with pork, chicken or beef. Our meal begins with a generous spread of complementary dishes. As in any traditional Korean restaurant, you don’t order them. The chef sends out a host of little bowls to herald the main course. We get eggy little pancakes, bright with chopped spring onions. Sweet potato tempura. Fresh salad, with carrots sticks, crunchy cabbage and macaroni, all tossed in a light mayonnaise. Overly tough sweet and spicy dried squid dusted with sesame seeds. And a boiled egg, neatly quartered and soaked in thick soy sauce.

For the main course, we consider playing safe with ramon noodles, fried rice and stir-fried chicken. But just for a minute. There are too many charming entries on the menu to ignore. Enough noodles to write a Dr. Seuss song for starters: Cold noodles. Warm noodles. Ice buck wheat noodles. And (I kid you not) ‘Noodles cut with kitchen knife’. There’s also a mysterious ‘Hemul Jim,’ carefully translated into ‘Steamed seafood party’ on the menu. Although the ‘seafood party’ does throw up irresistible images of drunken confetti-throwing squid, we finally settle on classic Bulgogi: grilled meat flavoured with sliced mushroom, thin onion rights and diced chillies. The dish, moist with a marinade of soya sauce, sugar, sesame oil and pepper, is served with basket of crisp, curly lettuce and Ssamjang, which literally means ‘wrapping sauce.’ You’re supposed to apply a thick paste of this sauce — made with fermented soy bean paste, red chilli, and sesame oil, among other things — to the lettuce leaf, before using it to wrap the meat. We try spicy pork, which like the Bulgogi, is slightly sweet. It’s interspersed with crunchy shards of carrots and cucumber. The flavours are unfamiliar, but engaging, especially if you’re an adventurous eater. Inseoul’s not cheap, but portions are generous. And food is light — using minimal oil and spices.

As we drive home Ms. Donkas suddenly remembers there’s a Korean bakery around the corner. The manager is just closing up, and switching off the lights when we reach Ambrosia, but she’s undeterred. She bounds out of the car and pastes her face against the glass window, much to his alarm. Then, begins an elaborate game of charades, pulling sad faces, mouthing “we’re hungry and have come a long way.” (I think I even saw her pretend to gallop on a horse, for maximum Casablanca-style sympathy.) Of course, he opens the door. Who wouldn’t?

We bounce about excitedly, loading pastry on a big tray. After trying to be stern (“Takeaway only”), the clearly amused manager hands each of us a fork, so we can start eating a refreshing green tea cake, filled with cool whipped cream, as we make our decisions. I pick up a semi-circular chiffon cake, so light it’s like eating vanilla-scented air. We eye the contentedly fat butter sticks, big walnut cookies and golden Earl Grey cookie squares. Ms. Donkas bites into dark bun, and delightedly shows me a centre moist with coffee cream. Everything is fresh, fluffy and just mildly sweet. In cakes like the plain sponge, in fact, the sweetness is barely perceptible. It’s a refreshing change from stereotypically heavy desserts. After we pay, we say goodnight to the manager and push open the door, only to hear him yell, “wait.” He comes out to hand us a complementary bun, filled with red bean paste crunchy with sugar, and a soft roll, sliced and slathered with sweetened cream. “For the ride home,” he says. “It’s a long way, no?”

InSeoul is at 530 (S149 & 150), TTK Road, (Above More Supermarket), Alwarpet. A meal for two is about Rs. 1000. Call 4208 1998, 4300 9521 for details.

Ambrosia is at 11/39, Flat A1, Ground Floor, Ceebros Apartments, Cenotaph Road, Nandanam. Pastries are roughly Rs. 100 each.

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