New Delhi, India
June 18, 2012
Well, Gung – The Palace opened in Delhi a couple of years ago, and after a friend recommended it highly (and I’d done some persuading), my husband agreed. He’s now going about recommending it to everybody he meets.
Gung – The Palace is situated in a double-storeyed building in Green Park. When we entered, we didn’t even get any time to look around the ground floor; we were immediately whisked away upstairs, to the first floor, where we were seated at a table in an oddly fussy-looking dining area. The walls are papered over with a pattern suggesting the exterior of a traditional Korean house, with brick walls and roof tiles. On the windowsills, and curving over shelves placed high on the walls, are artificial flowers and leaves. There are laminated table cards, advertising Gung’s own special wines and kimchee (which you can buy). There’s a wall-mounted TV up behind a counter, showing what seems to be a Korean film. It’s rather cramped, though some of what contributes to that air of closeness is quite attractive: traditional Korean screens, medicine chests, etc, made of carved wood.
The menu (both in Korean and English) reminded me of the many Chinese menus I’ve seen in Chinese restaurants in Beijing: a photograph of each dish accompanies the description. Gung offers a large range of dishes, all the way from appetisers and soups to noodles, stews, grills, etc (no desserts here). Even though we’ve never really had much Korean food before, both of us are aware of the cuisine’s signature dishes—and those were what we wanted to have. But how much to order? And what, exactly?
This is where I think Gung scored over a lot of other restaurants I’ve been to: without our asking, the manager (?) came over, a friendly young lady who helped us out, advising us on how much to order (a bibimbap and a wang galbi to share, since that would be quite sufficient for the two of us). Although Gung’s Korean wine has been highly praised (and they offer other spirits, wines and beers), we—since we don’t drink alcohol any more—decided to stick to a 7Up each.
A large pitcher of cold tea (with a lovely woodsy, roasted flavour) had been placed on our table as soon as we’d sat down. Now, while we waited for our food, two waitresses brought a massive tray and offloaded a very impressive array of banchan (side dishes and appetisers). The kimchee made of Napa cabbage was most conspicuous (and most familiar), but there were other little dishes that were fantastic too. Pickled radishes; greens cooked with garlic; gorgeously crisp beansprouts tossed with spring onions and sesame oil; slices of cold rolled omelette; something that resembled a pickled cooked potato; pickled sliced cucumbers; peanuts tossed with honey and sesame seeds… there was lots to explore here, and we loved all of it. Both of us are especially fond of the flavour of sesame oil, so the liberal use of the oil (and sesame seeds) in most of the banchan appealed to us.
We were still nibbling at the banchan and sipping our 7Up when our wang galbi (barbecued pork ribs) were brought over to our table. (If we’d been a little less intent on devouring the banchan, we’d have probably observed the waitress/chef who barbecued the marinated meat at a table-top grill at the table next to ours). With the platter of cooked sliced meat, the waitress brought us a large plate of crisp lettuce, sliced cucumber and carrots, and fat green chillies. Also a small bowl of a dark brown sauce, which was velvety, and with a wonderful sweet-tangy flavour. In front of us, too, the waitress placed a bowl of seaweed soup (beautiful in the simplicity of its flavours) each, alongside saucers of sliced raw onions and spring onions, tossed in soya sauce.
The waitress explained to us how the wang galbi is meant to be eaten (a procedure, I’m glad to say, we already knew; but it would’ve been useful for a newbie to Korean food). Pick up a lettuce leaf in your palm, add a stick of cucumber/carrot, or a green chilli (or all of those); add meat; put a dollop of sauce, and then some of that onion and spring onion relish. Wrap it all up, and you’re good to go. She didn’t mention that Korean etiquette demands you don’t nibble at this wrap, but put it into your mouth at one go. Leaves you unable to say anything for a while, but it’s the perfect way to have all those gorgeous flavours and textures—the succulent, delicious meat, the crispness of the fresh veggies, the sweet tartness of the sauce—explode in your mouth. Simply fantastic.
We were only about halfway through the wang galbi when the bibimbap arrived. This comes in a heated stone bowl, in which steamed rice acts as a bed for heaps of varied ingredients, most of them tossed in sesame oil: cucumber juliennes, carrot juliennes, spring onions, cooked shredded beef, and something that may have been seaweed or bracken. On top of it all, a fried egg is placed. The waitress asked us if we’d like her to mix it for us, and at our nods, she added a healthy dollop of fiery red chilli paste, before using to spoons to mix the bibimbap. I had been prepared for a very good comfort food, and Gung’s bibimbap didn’t disappoint. It was delicious. I can understand why this is one of Korea’s best-loved exports to the world of international cuisine.
By the time we’d finished, we had barely room enough to even taste the complimentary pieces of fresh papaya and watermelon that were brought to our table. Our bill amounted to Rs 2,069 (including taxes, but only a 5% service charge, so we left a further 10% as a tip). I guess if we’d had alcohol, this would’ve been a fairly expensive meal. As it was, we thought it was very good value for money.
From journal Delhi Restaurants: Expat Hangouts