SEOUL — I am not an adventurous eater. I like burgers. I am what you might consider a grilled cheese connoisseur. Wild for me might be a night with some tapas.
So heading to Seoul was a new way to sophisticate my palate. I had bulgogi (beef) and bibimbap. I tried the barbecue and the jeon (pancake). I sampled street food (potato slices spread out on a stick; a pastry shaped like a fish with bean paste inside).
With almost every dish, I was served kimchi, which is fermented vegetables (often spicy cabbage). Many meals involved cooking at the table, with meats tossed on a grill as everyone shared the food together.
But nothing quite tested me like Balwoo Gongyang, a restaurant across the street from the city’s main Buddhist temple — and where monks cook your meal.
It’s noted as one of the best restaurants in all of Seoul, a city with no shortage of adventurous and interesting restaurants. But unlike a city known for all kinds of meats — and owing to the restaurant’s religious affiliation — this place is vegetarian.
I was traveling alone, so I ordered the smallest meal on the menu. Which was 10 courses.
I was so out of place that initially I tried to eat the napkin. (In my defense, the waitress came and presented it by pouring water over it to make it grow into a tower. I thought maybe it was a root or some kind of noodle, until I took a soggy bite.)
The napkin tasted terrible. But the food was absolutely amazing.
Each dish oozed with flavor. Every bite was unique. Even the peanuts tasted interesting.
I forced myself to try everything, including the slimy tofu and leaves that looked like they’d just been yanked off a tree.
At home, I won’t eat a pizza with mushrooms. Here, I used my chopsticks to devour fried mushrooms, packed with flavor and spice.
I had dumplings, and ate leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables. There were pancakes made out of zucchini.
I’m by no means a salad specialist, but the one I ate here — fairly simple greens, with pine nut dressing — was one of the best I’ve ever had. I couldn’t tell what half the things before me were, but all of it tasted good.
Dessert consisted of sweet potato chips and a sweet drink that hit the spot.
The restaurant has rooms partitioned off with rice paper screens where people sit on the wooden floor. (Perhaps sensing I was the kind of guest who would try to eat a napkin, they seated me at one of the tables.) Brightly lighted, it is a place where your inner Zen is easy to find.
I left feeling full and proud, but I discovered the enlightenment I had found had its limits.
Upon returning home, with no monks to prepare my meals, my diet reverted to burgers and pizza — hold the mushrooms.