This year, instead of flowers or chocolates (not that that is any year, really) we gave ourselves this:
Two first class tickets on the KTX to Seoul!
First class tickets were not that much more ($15 or so) than coach class, and not drastically different in terms of amenities — just bigger seats and more leg room. But we figured since it was Valentine’s Day, why not live a little.
We took the metro to the train station, bought some drinks for our trip, then waited outside on the freezing cold platform for our train to arrive.
It was only after boarding the train that we noticed an enclosed, possibly heated, glass room with a television that we could have waited in near the front of the train.
Once the train started moving, a coffee cart and snack cart lady passed through the aisles. We ordered two cups of hot coffee and settled in for our 2+ hr train ride to Seoul.
I tried to take a nap but ended up watching the mountains and small farming villages swish by as our train hit speeds of about 180 MPH. It all went by pretty quickly.
Once in Seoul, we grabbed a cab and headed to our rental loft in Gagnam-gu. Bright, modern, and efficiently designed, our little loft was pretty much the perfect little home away from home, not to mention a welcome change in scenery from the hotel we have been living in for the past two months.
Having eaten only snacks on the train ride, we were starving by the time we arrived, and, after a quick google search of restaurants in the area, we were in another cab headed to a hidden little rustic Korean restaurant tucked away in the basement of a residential looking building.
The menu was entirely in Korean so we just pointed to what we thought was the ‘set’ menu. Ohmygoodness it was so much food, but wow it was so good. Simple, earthy, home-cooked traditional Korean food with dishes that included a bright apple and bitter green salad dressed in sweet hot mustard sprinkled with sesame and pumpkin seeds; acorn jelly soup — slightly sweet and vinegary, and so cool and refreshing; two-colored yin-yang looking onion pancakes served with a sweet and salty dipping sauce; a bubbling pot of nutty mushroom stew with dollops of chewy rice balls that reminded us of chicken and dumplings, except without the chicken; broiled fish, crispy and roasted on the outside and wonderfully fatty and flaky on the inside; spicy grilled octopus in a peppery red sauce that was just hot enough to get your nose running and just the tiniest bit of sweetness to offset the heat. There seemed to be a never-ending stream of food, each dish a new favorite. Whatever they brought out, we ate.
I could have gone straight to bed after that meal.
Instead, we decided to ‘walk it off’ around nearby Apgujeong , a trendy district in Seoul with lots of hoity toity shops and restaurants. Mostly we just window shopped.
Some windows had better displays than others.
After a bit of wandering, Sly noticed what seemed to be a cute wine bar / gastropub – Louis Cinq — on the second floor of a building. Upon entering we were asked if we had reservations. We did not. The host then asked, “why don’t you have reservations?” Sly was confused by his response, I was just clueless in general. After a bit of back and forth the host said he would check for any cancellations. Sly said we just wanted to grab drinks at the bar…there was a bar, right? Apparently there was not. So much for the ‘pub’ part of ‘gastropub.’ Still full from gorging at dinner, we didn’t feel like sitting down to another meal — or taking someone else’s reservation — just so that we could order a few drinks.
It was still early in the evening, the typical nightclub sounds of music and laughing and clinking not yet giving clues to the hot spots in town. We passed by a few bars but everything seemed empty. Slowly, and maybe by some lingering muscle memory, Sly found his way back to a part of town he used to frequent when he lived in Seoul 10 years ago. He found one bar and then instantly remembered another favorite up the street.
We climbed to the top of the hill and walked up and down the street where Sly’s old favorite bar used to be. “It used to be right here, ” he said. He kept turning in the street, trying hard to remember, until he looked up and noticed his old haunt, amazingly still there, but with an unlit sign and no signs of life.
Across the street a sleek new modern building beckoned us to go inside. I hesitated — in our haste to rush to dinner we hadn’t bothered to change into more appropriate going out clothes. Oh well. We went inside anyway.
A note on places like these: drinks are expensive — about $20 bucks or more per (regular sized) drinks. According to Sly, this is to encourage bottle service, which is what people normally do when they go out to lounges, etc. If you’re with a group of friends this makes a lot more sense, but with just two people, not so much.
Instead we ordered the special Valentine’s day “couples set” which included two shooters to start off the night…
The ‘couples set’ also came with a huge plate of strawberries covered in whipped cream and garnished with flowers, some handmade chocolate, and two cocktails of our choosing. Sly chose a martini and I picked a lychee mojito. The drinks were fabulous — I’m not sure they were $22 fabulous — but the were really really good. The perfect balance of liquor and not too sweet, even for my girly drink.
T-lound, at least in the early part of the evening, was still quiet enough to have a conversation and buzzy enough to have great vibe. Good music, stunning decor, hand-crafted drinks, and of course excellent service. We eased into the night and Sly ordered another expensive drink before deciding to move on to our next venue.
We walked past a bistro we were curious to try, and then back down the hill. Around the corner was a jazz club that Sly has talked about multiple times since knowing him, Once in a Blue Moon.
We went in for old time’s sake.
Strange to find such a place in an Asian country, I could see why Sly liked it way back when — it felt comfortable here, vague reminders of home carried with every note being played. We ordered an expensive (as there was no other kind) of wine and enjoyed a few sets.
After a couple glasses of wine, I excused myself to find the restroom. The ladies bathroom had some of those fancy toilets popular in Asia — the kinds with all the buttons. Some I could easily figure out — the bidet looking ones were obvious –but one I could not — the button showed an icon of a lady with very nice hair. I was a bit curious so…I pushed the button. At first nothing happened (at this point I was standing over the toilet) but then I heard a mechanical sound and noticed a plastic arm extend from inside the toilet bowl. And then out of nowhere the arm started to spray water, not in a gentle arc back into the toilet bowl, but in a HUGE overly dramatic arc up and over my head, hitting against the bathroom door with the force of a water hose. I stood in a horrified stupor, watching the water splash against the door and form huge pools of water on the floor, seeping out from beneath my door. The difference in expectation and actuality only made me that much more paralyzed. It was like having an out-of-body experience; part of me wanted to laugh, the other part of me wanted to just run and hide. If there was ever an Oh F*ck moment, this was it. Finally I came to my senses and closed the toilet lid, the water still angrily gurgling out and pooling around the toilet. After what felt like an eternity I heard the mechanical sound of the arm retracting back into its hidden hell hole and I tried to assess the damage. Someone entered the bathroom and started brushing her teeth (???) Crap. I waited for her to leave but then another lady entered and started brushing HER teeth too. WHAT WERE THE CHANCES? I frantically grabbed toilet paper, wadded it up into huge balls, and started sopping up the mess, trying my best to be as inconspicuous as possible and hoping the girls brushing their teeth couldn’t see my hand poking out from underneath the bathroom stall. Then I straightened my clothes, smoothed down my hair, and walked out of the bathroom stall, one arm soaked with water, washed my hands, went back to my table as if nothing had happened, and finished my glass of wine.
What. A. Frickin’. Dumbass.
Holding my toilet water-soaked arm, Sly and I watched the band play until we finished our bottle of wine.
Then we caught the last subway train back to our loft, raided the food aisle of the nearby 24hr convenience store, and watched “Unpretty Rap Star” before stumbling up to our cozy heated loft bed in the wee hours of the morning.
Jangsarang 장사랑 // 624-47, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul / 강남구 신사동 624-47, 서울특별시 / Korean traditional food // Approx $27 per person for set course menu that included a ton of entrees and sides. We were so stuffed, and couldn’t even finish all our food, which is pretty much a first for us. The food is considered traditional Korean food – lots of earthy flavors with a bit of spice and sweetness to punch things up. The meal was simple, but the flavors were robust. We know a lot of people that are ‘scared’ to try Korean food on account of it being “weird” or “too spicy” but I think this spread would be ok for even the most cautious palates. DIRECTIONS: We googled the name of this restaurant and got the Korean address — which we then showed to a cab driver who took us to the restaurant. The restaurant itself is in the basement/lower level of the building.
T-Lound // 83-13, Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu // 강남구 청담동 83-13 // wine, lounge, cigar bar, restaurant // $22 drink / $150+ for bottle service // This is a beautiful space designed by an award-winning designer. We were immediately drawn to it from a design stand-point but the drinks, while expensive, were equally great. I was a bit worried this place would feel pretentious or stuffy, but it never did. Come here for dinner, or, if you want to drink, come with a group of friends to ease the blow of the bottle service. TIP: happy hour is from 7-9 every day and includes 2 free shooters.
Once in a Blue Moon // 824, Seolleung-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul // 서울특별시 강남구 선릉로 824 (청담동) // Jazz + Wine Bar, food also served // This place is pretty much the only one of its kind in Seoul (according to Sly) and as such you can find a lot of expats here. There are mixed drinks available (approx $20 each) and an extensive wine list. Nothing on the wine list is under $70 a bottle except for a small carafe of wine which goes for $40. It makes for a pricey night out, but at least the entertainment is really good.
NK’s Loft // under $100/night // We found this place last minute (day before) on AirBNB, which btw is amazing in Seoul — affordable with lots of great options. We chose this place mostly because of the location — it’s between two subway stations and close to some of the trendier parts of town. It’s a quirky little place stocked with pretty much everything you need — hairdryer, towels, dishes, etc.. Technically 4 people can sleep in the loft, but I’m not sure how comfortable that would be — maybe 2 adults and 2 children with not much luggage? For two people though, it was perfect.