CUISINE: Korean BBQ ADDRESS: 611 Wonderland Road N DATE: November 15, 2013
LET’S BE HONEST: GANGNAM STYLE has got to be one of my most anticipated blog dinners on this list for a couple of reasons:
1) I had never tried Korean BBQ before, and had been looking forward to it. I’ve seen it on Food Network shows, and it looked really cool.
2) That god-awful name. Like, WOW. I had to know if this restaurant was in on the joke.
Lucky for us, the GANGNAM STYLE dinner ended up falling on the weekend that the YOUNG AMERICANS were staying with us.
For those of you who don’t know, the YAs are a traveling show choir who bring an amazing three-day music workshop to students all over the world. They come to our school every three years, and inspire and change the lives of our kids every. Single. Time. Our former students have become YAs, and YAs go on to become famous performers, but also doctors and CEOs and millions of other things. The opportunity for them to travel the world as young adults is extraordinary.
Ian and I have always hosted, aka Homestayed, YAs while they are visiting London. This time, we had three of the coolest guys on the tour:
Ricky, a 20-year-old from Michigan with a constant toque, a smile, and a talent for voices, including a wicked Russell Brand impression. Ricky had actually been to Korea before, so knew what he was talking about with this whole Korean BBQ thing.
Justin, a 21-year-old from New Jersey with aspirations of being an ACTOR actor: when he arrived at our place, he immediately read my latest Entertainment Weekly cover-to-cover, so of course I felt a kinship.
And Jeremiah, a 22-year-old from California with a KILLER operatic tenor, who said, while watching The Walking Dead, and without a TRACE of irony:
JEREMIAH: Whoa, dude. DUDE! That was Gnarly.
Because these guys stay in people’s homes throughout the tour, Ian and I always try to give them something that they have been craving or don’t get very often.
They partook of the hottub, caught up on their shows on-demand, raved about Ian’s chili, and I introduced them to the Canadian crack that is Tim Horton’s.
But because they are always unfailingly polite, I had a hard time dragging out of them what they wanted, and what they were sick of (“everyone cooks us special things—it’s great!”). Finally, Jeremiah supplied that he’d been craving BBQ, and I thought it would be fun to take them out for dinner on the evening we had off from the workshop.
You have to know that it took everything within us to even get out for dinner that night. The boys had been leading a dancing and singing workshop for 10 hours. For me and my colleagues, hosting the Young Americans, and the 200 students participating in the workshop at our school is amazing, but draining.
During some downtime, Jess and I had been looking up the restaurant to see if it would be ok for her as a Celiac. We laughed at the names of the different Gangnam-style related items on the menu:
MEGAN: (reading)The Psy platter…
JESS: Oh no.
MEGAN: (reading)The Hey Sexy Ladies Platter?!?
JESS: OH NOOOOO!
But when it came time to leave for dinner, Jess just looked at me, exhausted, and said, “I’m going home.” I nodded. And then she said, “and you’re jealous you’re not doing the same”.
And I nodded again.
We arrived at the restaurant at 8pm on a Friday, and were one of only two tables full. Gangnam Style is located in the Oxford and Wonderland plaza, the same one that houses the remnants of Herbies and that retro-styled McDonalds.
I was happy to see that while they may have missed the apex of the Gangnam-style trend (Gee, I wonder how that Mambo #5 restaurant is doing?), the decor and typefaces in the restaurant suggest they might have thought “whatever gets them in the door”.
This menu selection was by far the easiest to pick from.
(Three fresh-faced youth and their tired-looking parents sit down at a restaurants. All open their menus.)
ALL: (simultaneously) ALL YOU CAN EAT? (They close their menus)
Well, ok, we also took one second to order a dirty appetizer, some sticky spicy chicken that looked amazing. But since the PSY platter, the all-you-can-eat option, came with all of the BBQ items to try, we knew that would be the best option to feed these hungry men.
Ian and are foodies, but we are old enough now to forget how much people in their late teens, early 20s eat. Especially those who are expending 5000 calories a day dancing, and being SUPER POSITIVE.
Being that cute and smiling that much must be EXHAUSTING.
The last time the Young Americans came, we housed 5 of them. We bought one of those family-sized blocks of cheddar cheese, thinking that would suffice for the three days they were staying with us.
RYAN, DAY ONE: If you guys are headed to the grocery store, we could use some more cheese.
MEGAN: Oh, we actually have one of those big blocks—
RYAN: We’re out of cheese.
The cool thing about dining with these guys is because they’ve travelled so much internationally, they’ve eaten a lot of traditional Asian food that Ian and I haven’t. We were talking about the traditional types of Asian BBQ: in Japan, the traditional teppanaki is the Benihana (or for me, Caribbean resort-style) style where a man stand in front of you at a grill, making onion volcanos and flipping spatulas in the air, and lighting small fires to enthral the average North American. The Japanese call any kind of grilled meat Yakuniku.
They were also telling us about Shabu Shubu, the traditional method of cooking beef by boiling thin slices of it in water. Oh, I get it. It’s like Fondue: Thin-People-Edition.
That being said, when the traditional Korean sides came out, Justin took one bite of the stewed potatoes (along with pickled beans sprouts, and kimchee, below), and said:
JUSTIN: That is the weirdest taste I’ve ever had in my life. (beat) I liked it.
Also arriving first: our appetizer GANPOONGKI, which I’m sure is a real word, but to us was deep fried chicken in a spicy sauce. Almost General Tsao-style, to my stupid North-American mouth. I’m sure it’s wayyy different. But delicious, crispy and fresh. We gobbled it up.
The server also brought us a mess of accoutrements to go with our meat: jalepenos, garlic and a chunky BBQ sauce on one tray; pineapple, sriracha and soy-based glaze on the other. The pineapple one was the most popular with our table, although at one point, a cry rang throughout the (now empty) restaurant.
JEREMIAH: I'm SRIRACHA-ING IT, BABY!!
He’s from California.
I remember the first time I ever went to Mongolian Grill, back in the 90s, when I was alive, and I was AMAZED by the circular grill that the cooks prepared your food with. I was always excited to tip them, and have them ring the bell, for their impressive tossing skills, and standing behind a hot grill for hours at a time.
As opposed to chefs and cooks who do that at every restaurant on earth.
But a Korean BBQ restaurant takes the circular grill to the next level: each table is outfitted with a small propane grill in the middle of the table.
The server brings you your choice of meat (with our all-you-can-eat option, it included asian bacon, chicken, steak, ribs, and pork, all marinated in delicious sauces), uncooked. You get rice and all the fixin’s, and everyone at the table is kitted out with tongs to BBQ the food yourself.
Or in our case, I would try to cook things, and Ian would tell me what I was doing wrong.
JEREMIAH: I don’t like it when mommy and daddy fight.
(To be fair, I was adding raw chicken on top of the cooked chicken, which is apparently a one-way ticket to Salmonella Town.)
A WORD ON MY BAD COOKING: I am such a feminist, my household is a complete inversion of the 1950s stereotype. Ian cooks every meal. Ian cleans the kitchen. Ian does the grocery shopping.
It’s to the point where when Ian has to go out-of-town on business, he leaves me things to eat in Tupperware in the fridge, with reheating instructions.
When I was a teenager, I was totally taken care of by my mom and dad’s cooking. When I was in university, I lived with 3 guys who all knew their way around a kitchen.
So, I’ve so rarely needed to cook, I don’t really know how to.
It’s called LEARNED HELPLESSNESS AND IT’S A REAL THING.
I came into the school a couple of years ago with matching burns on both arms. When I explained to my students that I had burned my arms on the oven, one guy quipped, “Ian must be out of town.”
And while that was TRUE, it’s not the POINT.
I’m clumsy. And more of a food connoisseur than a gourmand.
So, if Ian is criticizing my ability to prepare my own food, it MAY not be unfounded.
Ian and I agreed to let everyone but me cook. FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN.
The level of concentration Justin was exerting to cook the chicken was directly proportional to it’s level of deliciousness. YUM.
The joke with Mongolian Grill is, if your food doesn’t taste good, you have no one to blame but yourself. And you could probably claim the same for Gangnam Style. Except the sauces were amazing, the meat fresh, tender and in a variety of simple marinades, and the rice perfectly cooked.
The bacon was my favourite:
It was fun, interactive, and REALLY, REALLY GOOD.
Beef, chicken and BBQ pork on the grill.
Justin, our Jersey Boy, took immediately to the grilling. He was monitoring the progress, flipping the meat, serving each of us before taking any himself.
I noted that once you got your meat, rice, veggies, sides, and sauce all together, you basically had to THROW your chopsticks into your mouth to get in all in there.
JUSTIN: You gotta swoop it. I’m in for the SWOOP.
He’s from New Jersey.
HOW TO EAT KOREAN BBQ: I put my grilled meat and sauces directly on to the rice, so it was all infused with the flavours.
HOW TO EAT KOREAN BBQ, STEP 2: Then, I would use chopsticks to shove it into my gaping maw. REPEAT AD NAUSEUM.
Finally, after two grill changes (they change the cooking surface to keep it clean), plenty of rice and sauce refills, and tons and tons of grilled meat, we were finally spent.
Justin, having served us well, is now in an eating stupor.
As we were the only people in the restaurant by 10pm, we got a chance to talk to our server, who was also the co-owner. She had grown up in Korea, and had fallen in love with a Canadian who had travelled to Korea to teach English. She emigrated to Canada with him 3 years ago, and in a delightfully whimsical mix-up with the Canadian government, had to convince them that she was just a lovely Korean lady, and not an Asian Prostitute being shipped into Canada.
She’s still trying to find it in her heart to not hold it against the entire country.
But she liked these Young Americans and their friendly ways, and gave us free fruity Ice Pops!
Gangnam Style is still a stupid name. But this restaurant is truly one of London’s hidden gems. I think this place would be THE BEST PLACE for a first date. It’s interesting, cute, interactive, and gives you something to talk about. The all-you-can-eat option is only about $24, which would put you, with a drink, at about a $60 dinner, and a super-fun experience.
The boys from America totally thought the food at Gangnam Style was as good, if not better, than the Korean BBQ available in California, where the Young Americans train. They were full, and they were happy.
And the next night, the boys did THIS with 200 of London’s finest students: That’s our grillmaster in the purple.