Kokotxa – San Sebastian

In a rare quiet corner of San Sebastian’s Old Town, away from the crowded pintxo bars and below the towering Mount Urgull sits Kokotxa. Two months before my trip to San Sebastian I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to visit my first Michelin-starred restaurant. San Sebastian, after all, boasts the second-highest Michelin stars per capita, behind only Kyoto in Japan. It is the epicentre of la nueva cocina, Spain’s answer to France’s nouvelle cuisine, blending traditional food and produce with modern and experimental techniques.

Kokotxa, Basque for cheeks, the tastiest part of any animal, is a small, unpretentious restaurant. Decorations are modest, dress code is casual; there is barely room for 30 people. A group of boisterous Australian and American cruisers occupied over half the dining room. The restaurant was fully booked two months in advance, and could only accommodate us at 9.30pm, normal by Spanish standards of course.

As expected of restaurants of this sort, the staff were friendly and knowledgeable on the day’s menu, options including a six-course “market menu” and nine-course “tasting menu” alongside the à la carte menu. We opted for the former, created from local, seasonal produce. The sommelier recommended an excellent Rioja at a very reasonable €5 a glass.

With so many eateries lining the Old Town, serving an implausibly wide array of pintxos and some excellent steak and seafood on the cheap, the chefs had their work cut out to impress me. After lunching at Bar Nestor, which serves only five items, all staunchly simple, steak, peppers, tortillas, for example, dinner was the polar opposite. Techniques brought to the masses only on Masterchef were abundant, with ample foam, froth and edible earth to please even John Torode. The food, immaculately presented, was almost all excellent.

First came the appetiser, a brownish, beige sauce accompanied by breadsticks. My unsophisticated pallet detected a creamy, cheesy concoction; it turned out to be mayonnaise and mustard, but it whet our appetites sufficiently. The starter, a tomato, red pepper and feta gazpacho was refreshing, mixing the sweetness of the peppers with the tomatoes’ acidity and the tang of the feta perfectly. A dainty, slightly lost, shrimp blini sat beside the soup.

Mains were focused on seasonal and fresh seafood. The highlight came first, an asparagus, scallop, and Jerusalem artichoke salad on an edible earth of chocolate, squid ink, cheese and almonds. It resembled art rather than food, and wouldn’t look out of place on show at the Guggenheim in nearby Bilbao.

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Asparagus, scallop and Jerusalem artichoke salad

Two fish dishes were expertly executed. Cod kokotxa, the restaurant living up to its name, were gelatinous, melt-in-the-mouth pieces of goodness. The waiter insisted kokotxa comes from under the chin, though Google maintains it’s the cheek. Either way, it was a delight, presented on parsley sauce with a mousse made from the cooking juices and olive oil.

Hake in a dashi of dried tuna, seaweed and shiitake was equally tender and tasty, despite combining some of my least favourite flavours, and it was accompanied by a crab and saffron rigatoni.

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Grilled hake Japanese style
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Dessert

 

The only disappointment was a prawn on a bed of beetroot rice and seaweed, which we greedily and somewhat unnecessarily added to the market menu for a seventh course. The prawn wasn’t sweet and tender like others I’ve had, and the beetroot rice lacked flavour. But slow-cooked Iberian pork with a macadamia mousse restored my faith.

The dessert, a sponge cake with things that sound gross, cheese mousse and goat yoghurt ice cream for example, was surprisingly good.

At €75 a head, including drinks, Kokotxa isn’t cheap, but neither is it outrageous compared with some more pretentious rivals. It’s earned its Michelin star for a reason. Local, fresh produce is combined with modern techniques to create intriguing and inspired dishes. It isn’t afraid to look outside Spain for influences, but stays true to its roots.

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Bar Nestor – San Sebastian

I fell in love with San Sebastian last year during a two-day trip. The long, sandy beaches, surrounding mountains and elegant avenues make for a beautiful, unique city. It looks a bit like Rio de Janeiro, complete with a giant Jesus atop Monte Urgull, overlooking the Old Town

Food is the main reason why I like Donostia, as its known in Basque, so much. The Basque Country is famous for its cuisine, from simple, homely fare to some of the world’s finest, and most experimental, restaurants. New Basque Cuisine, modern, innovative cooking influenced by France, emerged in the 1970s, and Arzak, with three Michelin stars, is its most famous proponent.

But visitors to San Sebastian don’t need deep pockets to try an array of mouthwatering dishes. Pintxos, small tapas-like snacks available at every bar, are affordable and always delicious. They can feature almost anything, whether its seafood, cheese, fish, meat or peppers and other vegetables.

Then there is Txuleton, which can be found at many Old Town restaurants. The huge cuts of steak come from old cows, usually past their milking lives, often up to 17 years old; in Britain, most of the beef we eat is two-and-a-half years old.

Twelve months ago, two friends and I stopped by Bar Nestor, a tiny, atmospheric bar in the heart of the Old Town. Football and rugby shirts signed by Basque stars adorn the walls. There are two tables, most people have to make do with a spot at the bar or standing outside.

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Bar Nestor

Last year the beef was sold out by the time we arrived, admittedly rather late. The staff apologised, and gave us free drinks to accompany our superb padrón peppers. I vowed that one day I would return.

Last week I returned to the Basque country with my mother, and I made sure Bar Nestor was our first stop. Again, it was crowded on the Friday night we arrived, but it was third time lucky the next day.

Bar Nestor serves only five dishes: txuletonpadrón peppers, tomatoes, tortillas, twice daily, and cured meats. We walked past the restaurant at 11.30am and found Nestor cleaning up inside. Through this chance encounter we discovered the tortilla, reserved a piece, and returned at 1pm.

The tortilla, sold out within minutes, was unquestionably the best I’ve ever had. No longer can I countenance a dry, bland tortilla; Nestor’s tortilla oozed with eggy, potatoey, salty goodness, it’s a pity we couldn’t have more.

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Nestor’s tortilla

We followed the tortilla with an order of steak, tomatoes and peppers, accompanied by a fine Rioja and local beer. A waiter emerged with two brick-sized cuts of steak; we chose the larger. The tomatoes arrived first. They were fresh, doused in the finest olive oil and lots of salt, and served alongside fresh, crunchy bread. The peppers emerged, cooked to perfection, before the party piece arrived.

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Rarely do things live up to the hype, but old cows certainly do. The meat, cooked rare, was dark and rich; the fat is almost orange, and more flavoursome than normal beef. My mother’s first reaction was a fit of hysterics; good steak brings out the strangest reactions. But it really was the best steak I’ve had this side of the Atlantic, and, at around £30 per kilo, good value.

Bar Nestor has become very touristy, a victim of its own success. If visiting on a weekend night, there will be long waits, and it may not even be possible to get served. But it is definitely worth persevering, because, despite its simplicity, it serves some of the best food around.

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Monty’s Deli brings Jewish classics back to the East End – and it’s definitely worth a visit

London and New York: two global food capitals, where you can find any food at any time of the day. Over the past century New York has become the symbolic home of the Jewish deli, typified by the iconic Katz Delicatessen. But the East End, where tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews found a home, once had an equally vibrant Jewish food scene.

Remnants of Jewish food culture remain in Brick Lane’s 24-hour bagel shops, but Monty’s Deli is leading the charge to repopularise classics like chicken soup, potato latkes, salt beef and pastrami. Having acquired a large following at Maltby Street Market, co-owners Mark Ogus and Owen Barratt have moved to a permanent location in Hoxton, where similar foods were once common.

The restaurant has maintained a relaxed atmosphere, with New York-style booths, and stools along the bar. Meat hangers from the original 19th-century butcher add a rustic feel. I’m a sucker for salt beef bagels, the ultimate sandwich, and have been eagerly awaiting the chance to come to Monty’s.

For starters we ordered chicken soup. Sadly it was bland, more like chicken essence. But it was the only hiccup. Our sandwiches arrived promptly and the meshuggener, a mouthwatering blend of chopped liver, made using Ogus’s grandmother’s recipe, salt beef, pastrami and coleslaw, was the highlight. Servings are certainly generous, and my bagel (which I requested instead of rye bread after learning they are made on site) failed to hold everything in. After some DIY, I was able to enjoy one of the best salt beef sandwiches in London.

The Reuben, a New York classic, was also superb. Layer upon layer of salt beef was topped with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing inside toasted rye bread. Sides of tangy sauerkraut and a fresh fennel, caper and parsley salad helped justify the meat overload. We finished with cheese blintzes, light pancakes filled with ricotta and topped with cooked grapes, which were excellent.

The staff, aside from a grumpy waitress, were polite and attentive. We were lucky to bag stools by the chefs, and Barratt was unfailingly polite, handing us samples, offering top-ups and answering questions. By our count they went through 10 slabs of salt beef and pastrami in an hour. If they keep it up, there is certainly potential for a new classic Jewish Deli in the old East End.

The best Middle-Eastern food in London

London has long been a centre of immigration, from Irish, Jewish and Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century to Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and West Indian arrivals after the fall of the Empire. Contrary to popular jibes against ‘British’ food, the successive waves of immigration have all left indelible marks on the island’s cuisine. Salt beef, fish and chips, chicken tikka masala and jerk chicken are all now as British as tea, which of course, came from China. In short, true British food is a wonderful amalgamation of a variety of cultures and tastes; it tells the history of immigration and empire on a plate.

Visitors to London readily head to Indian restaurants, or fish and chips shops, for a traditional local meal. Yet there is one cuisine that is often overlooked, a cuisine that is increasingly popular among Londoners themselves. Middle Eastern and North African food, which, of course, is not one cuisine but a rich and diverse set of food cultures, has emerged as a favourite in Britain’s capital. With the help of famous chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, the Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula, in terms of culinary influence, are in vogue. Thankfully, a dodgy kebab at 3am or a tub of supermarket hummus no longer constitutes our relationship with Middle Eastern food.

And to prove the point, here are three of London’s finest restaurants from the region. The restaurants demonstrate a variety of influences, from Turkey to North Africa via Lebanon, and offer a range of prices.

Gokyuzu

Harringay, in North London, and its main thoroughfare of Green Lanes, is the epicentre of London’s Turkish and Kurdish communities. Along the scruffy, unpretentious road, fried chicken and pizza places fight for commerce with bookmakers and hipster burger joints. But the Lanes’ main pull is the stunning array of Turkish food on offer, with bakeries offering mouthwatering borek and patisseries serving the finest baklava.

Though there are many excellent restaurants, the best, and the busiest, is Gokyuzu. Just a few minutes walk from Harringay Green Lanes overground station, Gokyuzu is worth the slightly awkward trip from central London. At nights and weekends, it is perpetually busy, and queueing is likely for those who haven’t booked. Once in, you’ll be greeted by an impressive range of Turkish classics, such as the tangy, lemony Kisir and the best lahmacun, Turkish pizzas topped with minced lamb.

Despite a potentially confusing selection of mains, confusing in that you will want them all, there is only one serious option for those in the know. Available in several sizes, depending on the party, the platter involves a combination of the finest, juiciest grilled meats, such as chicken wings, lamb ribs and chicken and lamb shish. The hefty portion of meat sits atop a bed of rice and bulgur wheat, reliably soaking up the juices. On the side, warm Turkish bread and a fresh salad offer perfect accompaniment.

Quite reasonably, for the quality of food and size of portion, it is difficult to spend more than £20 per person. For Turkish food, this should be the first stop in London for all food lovers.

Beirut Express

Edgware Road, which heads north from Marble Arch in central London, is home to a significant Middle Eastern community, and is often dubbed Little Arabia. Just a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, it boasts, in particular, several excellent Lebanese restaurants, notably several branches of the excellent Maroush chain.

Maroush cater to a diverse audience, with smart and casual outposts along Edgware Road. For exquisite, cheap shawarma in an unassuming, friendly environment, look no further than Beirut Express. Open until 2am, Beirut Express is perfect for a late-night meal, after a night out in Soho or the West End. If kebab shops were this good in the rest of London, they wouldn’t have such a poor reputation. By all means, the kebabs at Beirut Express are suitable for the sober.

The cold and hot mezza are all superb, especially the sautéed chicken liver and the kibbeh, deep fried lamb meatballs filled with cracked wheat and herbs, and the Lebanese pastries are second to none. Likewise, the mains are fantastic, though slightly pricey.

But Beirut Express is not the place to eat a full meal, there are several top choices nearby. Come for the shawarma wraps, a cheap option at roughly £5, and bask in the glory of a juicy, greasy kebab filled with the finest marinated lamb and the freshest herbs and salad.

London is full of terrible kebab shops offering bland or overly-salted meat presented on top of a soggy pitta with raw onion and commercial garlic sauce. Visit Beirut Express, if only for proof that the kebab, when made right, is the mother of all fast foods.

Moro

Situated in the now trendy Exmouth Market in Farringdon, Moro is the more sophisticated of the three. Opened around 20 years ago, it predates the current wave of smart casual, reasonably-priced, North African-inspired restaurants in London. It remains one of the best.

Moro, whose name comes from the Spanish for Moor, isn’t strictly Middle Eastern. It is a modern, fusion-type restaurant that mixes Moroccan and Spanish influences to perfection. It is the type of place that serves freshly-baked sourdough alongside its starters, and that is a very good thing.

The menu changes regularly, but is likely to feature staples of North African cooking, such as harissa, za’atar, dates, apricots and pomegranates, mixed with traditional Spanish ingredients like chorizo, morcilla and jamón ibérico. It works to perfection. On my last visit, the highlight was grilled skate with paprika and farika, a form of roasted wheat common across North Africa.

Moro is a special occasion sort of place. The customers are unfailingly cool and well-heeled, sometimes too much for their own good. It isn’t cheap, with mains upwards of £20 each, but the food is consistently superb; seasoning and herbs are subtle, hints of the Maghreb beautifully presented and delightful to eat. Next door, a sister restaurant, Morito, offers tapas and small plates on similar lines. If you can, however, stick to Moro, and you will experience fine, modern Euro-North African cuisine and immediately plan, and save, for your next visit.

Lebanese food in São Paulo

São Paulo is one of the Americas’ most multicultural cities. Over 50% of its population claims some Italian descent, while many others have German, Portuguese, Eastern European, Jewish, Japanese or African ancestry. All these groups have left indelible marks on the city’s culture, particularly gastronomically. Going out for pizza or sushi, for example, are extremely popular activities, and both are now considered native Paulista fare.

Aside from Italian and Japanese, there is one group that has influenced São Paulo’s, and indeed Brazil’s, cuisine more than most. Perhaps surprising to some non-Brazilians, Arabic food is an elemental feature of the Brazilian gastronomic experience. While the north of Brazil has a longstanding link to Arabic food in the form of Acarajé, deep-fried balls made of ground beans, brought by West African slaves, and not dissimilar to falafels, the more recent immigration of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Syrians to the southern states popularised several Middle Eastern classics.

Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, Levantine emigration, mostly Christians escaping the Ottoman Empire, brought many Arabs to Brazil. Subsequently, textiles and clothing shops and factories became an important route to money and assimilation. Today, it is estimated that between 7-10 million Brazilians are of Lebanese descent, with around 4 million hailing in some form from Syria. Brazilian Arabs are a remarkably integrated group, with countless politicians (São Paulo has had three Arab mayors since 1993, and the current president, Michel Temer, is of Lebanese extract), and public figures.

Food, however, is the greatest symbol of Arab integration. Kibe, deep-fried balls of bulgur wheat, lamb or beef and spices are extremely popular, available at any snack counter across the country. Esfiha, small pastries topped with mince or cheese, similar to Turkish lahmacun, are equally ubiquitous, and there is even a fast food chain, Habib’s, dedicated to the delightful dish.

In order to fully experience the fantastic Lebanese (and Syrian) cuisine available in São Paulo, however, it is necessary to visit one of the many popular restaurants across the city. The perfect place to start is at Halim, a traditional joint established in 1973 by Lebanese immigrants and still run by the same family.

Situated just off the southern end of Avenida Paulista, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Halim is cheap and perpetually busy. Past the entrance, a large counter is filled with Lebanese sweets such as baklava and takeaway savoury classics, while Levantine deli products adorn the opposite wall. Behind the casual entrance, the restaurant fans out into a large dining room and, on our latest visit, at 2pm on a week day, we had to wait 10 minutes for a table.

It is definitely worth the queue and the noisy ambience. The best option is the individual meze selection (an oxymoron?), where the customer can choose six from a variety of Lebanese classics. After an excellent meat esfiha to start, which should always be eaten with a squeeze of lime, at least when in Brazil, our meze plates arrived. I opted for aubergine stuffed with rice and mince in tomato sauce, tabbouleh, hummus, baba ganoush, kofte and Moroccan rice with almonds, chicken, mince and herbs. All the dishes were well executed, the aubergines succulent, the hummus perfectly seasoned, and the baba ganoush smokey and creamy. Only the kofte was slightly disappointing, a bit too dry for my liking. A huge basket of flatbreads was provided, perfect not only for mopping up the various sauces, but to use as cutlery.

The popularity and ubiquity of Arabic food in Brazil is little known outside the country. Nevertheless, future visitors should seek it out, particularly when in São Paulo, a city that offers a breadth and quality of Middle Eastern cuisine to match any big city, and Halim provides an excellent introduction.

Escocesa Review

I arrived at Escocesa misinformed. My limited research led me to believe I was coming to a Spanish-Scottish fusion restaurant. The very name, meaning ‘Scottish’ in Spanish, seemed to suggest Stoke Newington’s hipsters had run out of ideas. What was I setting myself up for? Battered chorizo? Deep-fried manchego? Morcilla with neeps and tatties?

Fortunately, as we arrived on a Sunday evening it was clear I was wrong. The front room houses an open kitchen, complete with chefs trained at Michelin-starred restaurants and bar stools for casual dining. Behind lies the main dining room which thankfully takes bookings, unlike many similar outlets, such as The Barbary in Covent Garden. The restaurant was full of families celebrating Mother’s Day.

My preconceptions swiftly evaporated; this was no half-baked fusion, but a quality tapas restaurant, with a menu celebrating Spanish classics, from patatas bravas to platters of chorizo and jamón ibérico. Escocesa takes its name from a focus on Scottish ingredients, particularly seafood, which is among the best in the world. Much of it is sent to Spain, but owner Stephen Lironi, helped by an array of Spanish chefs, has brought the good stuff back to the UK.

We started with pádron peppers, a Galician classic of grilled small green peppers doused in olive oil and salt, which were remarkably moreish. A second helping was mistakenly offered to us; we happily accepted the orphaned peppers. Fellow starters came swiftly. Catalan pan con tomate, bruschetta-like bread with a garlicky tomato topping, were the best I’ve had outside Spain. The jamón croquettes were creamier, cheesier and tastier than the average London fare.

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Pan con tomate

The attentive and well-informed staff recommended three sharing plates each, but we ordered more as there were too many enticing items on the menu. The first larger plate to arrive was from the specials board, grilled squid on a bed of tomato and fried chorizo, and was beautifully executed. Grilled prawns in garlic and olive oil came next, and we made a highly satisfying mess of them.

The piece de resistance was a superb squid slider. Rings of lightly-battered squid and a heavy dollop of aioli engulfed by a magnificent squid ink brioche, a nice touch of creativity. The meal was accompanied by some excellent Rioja and a fine bottle of craft beer brewed in Barcelona. We ended our night with homemade ice cream, the highlight of which was the salted caramel.

The only hiccup, apart from a couple of long waits between dishes, was a greasy deep-fried aubergine. Perhaps the Scottish influence did creep in after all? But Escocesa has a laid-back, unpretentious decor, classic Caribbean tunes adding to the atmosphere, and is cheaper than many of its rivals. We focused on the seafood menu, leaving plenty of enticing meat options for next time. 

The best food in Korea

By Ben Preston, co-founder of ViaHero.com

Korean food has always been one of my favourite types of food, albeit one I barely understood. Then, a short while ago, I had the chance to travel to Seoul for a close friend’s wedding. During that trip, I was able to get a week-long crash course in Korean food from my friends (who also happen to be local foodies and overall great guys). Here are some of my favourites:

5 – Kimchi Dumplings

Namdaemun Market is a sprawling street market in Seoul selling second-hand goods, clothing, and most importantly, tasty food. While some of the sit-down options here seemed a bit too tourist focused (I would avoid a place called ‘Noodle Alley’ at all costs!), the gems of Namdaemun are on the street. Using my general rule of eat-where-lots-of-locals-eat, I stumbled across a small stand selling freshly steamed kimchi dumplings. Warm and inviting, this was the best street food that I ate and was perfect on a cold day.

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Kimchi dumplings

4 – Banchan

Banchan are the nearly endless variety of tasty small plates of food that come with almost every meal. Kimchi was almost always present (yum!) which always added a spicy and complex complement to any meal. My favourite thing about banchan is that they are served right when you arrive to eat and refills are endless. I am pretty sure I could live in Korea for five years and still not sample every type of Banchan.

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Banchan

  

3 – Kimbap

I’ve always associated maki (rice and fillings, wrapped in seaweed and then sliced) to be a classic Japanese dish. Then I came to Korea, and found out about Kimbap: the Korean cousin of maki filled with uniquely local ingredients like kimchi, daikon radish, and pork. Kimbap is cheap, filling, available everywhere, and super tasty. Pork sushi?  Yes please.

  

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Kimbap

4 – ChiMac

Now we are getting to the big leagues. ChiMac, derived from the Korean words for Chicken and Beer, is a Seoul classic. One of the coolest parts of eating ChiMac in Korea was trying the different styles. The first place I tried was in the super trendy Gangam district and was filled with young business people out from work and what looked like lots of first dates. The chicken was perfectly crispy and crunchy, topped with herbs and sauce, and served with a crisp ice cold beer.

But my favourite of numerous ChiMacs was actually from an old-school ChiMac joint that I could best describe as a Korean pub. Definitely not a place known for the ambiance but loved for the chicken, the ChiMac came both plain and in a sweet-spicy sauce. The meat was tender, so juicy and flavourful, and the coating was crispy and unlike any fried chicken I have ever had. It was simply amazing. This was one of the dishes that I would travel back to Korea just to eat again.

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ChiMac

1 – Korean BBQ

Choosing between ChiMac and Korean BBQ was nearly impossible – both were so different and amazing in their own way. However, the sheer diversity of Korean BBQ in Seoul put BBQ on top.

We started with some classic beef BBQ: self-cooked tasty morsels wrapped in lettuce and loaded with garlic, kimchi, and Ssamjang sauce, yum! 

Then we moved on to what is surely one of my favourite meals ever: Pork-centric Korean BBQ. Slabs of every kind and cut of pork cooked by a pro right at our table. The best was the sliver of pork belly, super tender and flavourful, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf. Another must-try food here was a variation on Kimchi I had never seen before: cooked below the pork on a slanted grill, pork juice flowed down and cooked the kimchi. This pork-juice-cooked-Kimchi was oddly reminiscent of Polish stuffed cabbage, and was one of the most unique I ate on the entire trip.

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Korean Barbecue

But perhaps the meal that put Korean BBQ over the edge for me was a fusion of Korean + Mexican food that was unexpected and amazing. The chicken was marinated in a blend of Korean and Mexican spices, and then grilled at the table along with tortillas. Instead of classic lettuce wraps, we assembled little packets of grilled chicken, Korean Nacho cheese, mint leaves, and onions for perfect bitesized pieces of happiness.  The restaurant even served a boiling plate of cheese with tortillas chips inside – what I can only describe as Korean Nachos.   

The food in Korea was diverse and incredible. My only advice would be to try to find a local to take you around, or make friends quickly, to get the true Seoul experience.