Review: Balwoo Gongyang Restaurant, Korean Temple Cuisine

I watched Netflix’s Chef’s Table season 3 Episode right when the season premiered and was immediately inspired by Chef Jeong Kwan, a buddhist nun from the Chunjinam Hermitage at the Baekyangsa Temple, South Korea. She probably came into the American spotlight when Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in NYC invited her to cook at his restaurant which prompted this NY Times article.

Her philosophy on food as a spiritual energy, its connection to nature, harmony, meditation, the mind, and happiness really struck a chord with me. I found myself nodding eagerly and smiling widely as she described her approach to both life and food, and how the two are interconnected.

I was already planing to spend President’s Day weekend in Seoul, South Korea, and so when I watched the episode I immediately looked up the Temple. Unfortunately its a bit far from Seoul for a short weekend trip. As such my hope were dashed. However, in my research for places to eat in Seoul, I came across a restaurant in the michelin guide (I just thought it was part of the general guide, only to realize it actually had 1 star when I arrived there), this restaurant was in the heart of Seoul, Balwoo Gongyang Restaurant. (You can read about the other parts of my Seoul trip in the link above as part of my Weekend Trip Series)

Balwoo Gongyang is located on the top floor of a Templestay Information Center. A place to educate the public about Korean buddhism, arrange for temple stay experiences, a second floor temple food buffet, and on the top floor the 1 starred Michelin buddhist vegan tasting menu restaurant of Balwoo Gongyang.

Normally I am not about vegan or vegetarian food. However, from prior experiences I know that temples often produce very good dishes because of the care and mindfulness that goes into cultivating the produce, so I was fine with heading to Balwoo.

I arrived right when the restaurant opened at 6PM for dinner service. I had no idea it was a tasting menu and that reservations were encouraged. Luckily being a Monday night, they had extra spots open for a lone tourist walking into their establishment.

The interior is very simple and zen, as you might expect for a place serving temple cuisine. Service was friendly, prompt and timed very well. Like much of Seoul, there were not many English speaking staff at this restaurant (I dont think many tourists venture to Seoul for Temple food, but they should). Luckily there was one very friendly waitress who spoke fluent English, and she also happened to study under Chef  Jeong Kwan while majoring in traditional Korean cuisine in college. What a coincidence! I explained that I came to Balwoo because of the show since she was curious why a tourist would come to their restaurant or what made me want to learn about Korean Temple Cuisine.

 

On the wall of the room I was in was a pre-meal chant:

“Where has this food come from?

I am ashamed to be eating it.

I will take it as medicine to get rid of greed in my mind

and to keep my physical being in order to achieve enlightenment.”

Couldnt agree more.

 

There are 3 tasting menus ranging in prices and content, the most expensive one is a pre-order only. I went for the mid-range one for a fuller experience. At 65,000 Won ($59 USD), its really not a bad deal for a 7 course dinner, even if it is vegan. Drinks not included.

One of the highlights was a simple piece of lettuce. I know, one wonders how can a lettuce taste so good or be the highlight of any meal? But seriously, this piece of lettuce I feel embodies what Jeong Kwan preaches in Chef’s Table and what makes Temple Cuisine worthwhile and delicious. The lettuce was fresh, sweet, crunchy, and it was balanced with t fermented tofu and grated carrots.

Most of the dishes were like that, light, subtle, balance yet somehow managed to be complex. Just like in the Chef’s Table episode, you could feel and taste the real natural flavors and textures of each component in the dishes.

Now let the photos and captions take you on my meditative Korean Temple Cuisine journey.

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Entrance to the Templestay Information and Culture Center
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Pre-Meal chant
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Menu
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Temple food philosophy
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Balwoo philosophy
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The tasting menu I chose
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Drink selection.
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Korean Yam with sesame seed and deonjang sauce, Lettuce with fermented tofu paste and carrots, Millet porridge and radish gimchi
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The lettuce
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Gahmsikcho, 7 year aged persimmon vinegar
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Cilantro and watermelon radish salad, accorn jelly with kimchi, seasoned cabbage with black sesame seed sauce.
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Deep fried mushroom in gochujang (korean red sauce), pickled lotus seed, pine mushroom and stuffed tofu pocket stew, deep-fried ginseng, seasoned walnut and jaepi (Korean type of pepper seed), seasoned Doedok root in pine nut sauce.
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Gok-cha, whiskey made with pine tree flower, aged 100 days, a 1500 year recipe, only one monk in all Korea knows it. originally for medicinal purposes, and tastes like an aromatic robitussin.
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Cold noodle with shitake mushroom and Korean pear, three-colored pancake of mun bean and winter vegetable, tofu temple dumpling, lotus seed with sea grass and egg tofu
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(pardon the blurry photo) Lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice with pine and ginko nut, doenjang soup (fermented bean), assorted kimchi, lotus seed, and fermented chili
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Steamed sticky rice with gingko nuts
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Soft persimmon with yam and pear foam, Duteop rice cake

 

May you find Happiness in Travel and Food,

TheGastronomicTraveler

 

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