I now deeply regret that I forgot to take my digital camera with me last night.
Yongsusan is a special place, a soothing haven on an otherwise bleak stretch of Vermont Blvd. It is a place of evocative, simple music and serene paintings-- where the servers wear long flowing skirts and serve you a fixed price meal of Korean specialties in the Royal Kaesong style, over the course of an hour or so.
After selecting the more appealing of the two Jerome-endorsed $22.99 meals (fixed course meals go up to $50 per person, and the menu says minimum of 2 orders per person) we were served almost immediately a crisp put unremarkable lettuce salad in a sharp creamy dressing, along with a pumpkin porridge which was simple and remarkable in its simplicity. After years of eating tarted up pumpkin pie (Apologies to the "Filling Station" in Orange, whose pie you should definitely try), I now know what the essence of pumpkin actually tastes like.
Before we could finish this course, we were presented with several more (this was my only problem with the meal-- a flurry of "appetizer" type courses arrived way too quickly.) One was a sesame mung bean noodle, cool and crisp and wonderfully soft and chewy. Also a marinated jellyfish salad-- strips of translucent jellyfish tossed with julienned cucumber, topped with a shrimp sliced in half, and garnished with 2 wedges of preserved duck egg, sitting on top of a wafer-thin coin of meat. The jellyfish salad was tossed in an invisible but brightly flavored, crisp dressing that woke up my mouth. The texture of the jellyfish was unlike anything else I had tasted-- a little soft and resilient at first, the texture of glass noodle on the outside-- but as you bite down, there is a definitive crunch. The flavor is mild, not at all fishy and very difficult to describe. However the contrast of textures and flavors in this dish was really fascinating.
Next we were served about eight 1" square thin slices of what I can only describe as korean bacon. Served cool, with a small vinagery dipping sauce, and a garnish of kimchee. This was wonderful-- savory, smoky squares with tender meat on the bottom which graduated like a rainbow to fatty meat, and then to fat at the top. Again, contrast of texture of the firm, tender meat and the soft fat-- the smoky flavor of the "bacon" and the light sweetness of the dipping sauce... wonderful!
Next was the "special kimchee"... half a head of cabbage, divided into four quartes (but not all the way) so that you could peel back the outer layer and pick out the kimchee from underneath. This kimchee was different, with a milder, more complicated flavor that was less spicy than the kimchee accompanying the pork. The 1/2 head was resting in a dish of bright orange spicy marinade, which I felt overpowered the unique and delicate flabor of the special kimchee with too much spicyness.
At this point, my girlfriend and I were wishing that we had a third person here, to help us out. We'll know better next time.
Next course were seared scallop mini-skewers. Fantastic! A tiny kabob of (in order) perfectly seared mushroom, scallop and a tiny broccoli floret. This one I wouldn't have shared with a third person!
Next was a course of barbecued beef. A bit of a mystery cut, but this platter of marinated beef was wonderful, richly flavored and tender, served on a bed of slightly caramelized onions, and topped with some green onions and sesame seeds. Delicious sweetness, accentuated *greatly* by the special kimchee, which we had been slowly working through (remember, it was 1/2 a head of pickled cabbage we're talking about here...) In fact, once I discovered the combination, I couldn't stop eating it. The special kimchee and beef combo is not to be missed.
Also served were glass noodles and vegetables-- basically jab chae, and a tasty rendition.
Next we were presented with what out server called the "main course" (at this point, those words were painful to hear... we are already pretty full!) Indeed this was the only time that the server returned with the menu to ask which of the "main courses" we wanted. It was a selection of soups. I tried to order the sizzling rice soup, but the waitress insisted that "Americans don't like that". I was already full and in no mood to scarf down more challenging food (or any food for that matter) so I ordered the rice cake soup, a very light broth of incredibly light, smooth, soft rice dough balls in a clear broth with strips of seaweed and egg dancing around. My girlfriend ordered the soybean soup, which was served with rice and smelled of the funk of fermented soybeans (my girlfriend is from Taiwan, so the server apparantly didn't have an issue in warning her away from her selection!) Incidentally, it was quite tasty when mixed with rice. The fermented soybeans had a strong funk, culturally comparable in its own way to stinky French cheese. Delicious, but I'm sticking with my light-as-air broth. My girlfriend took about 90% of her soup home.
Final course-- dessert. We were served a wonderfully cold cinnamon and cardamom tea drink, garnished with one pine nut. Very sweet and refreshing, and it went extremely well with the two tiny Korean pastries-- about 1 inch rectangular dense layers of chewy dough, like a Korean baklava. Magnificent!
Total price with tip was $58, easily splittable with a third person. (We did not order alcohol- we stayed with the free pot of hot bulghar tea)
In all, a fantastic experience. The $50 menu is nearly twice as long as the $23 menu, and contains items like abalone and sashimi. One day I'll convince two other friends to come along and we'll split two of those menus.
Thanks again for a fantastic rec, Jeroma