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Braai with caution, eat with abandon
DIY Korean fusion BBQ in Cape Town’s city centre
“Everything in South Korea starts and ends with galbi,” reminisces a slightly nostalgic Coenraad Groenewald, founder of Cape Town’s only Korean BBQ fusion restaurant and, quite honestly, the last man you’d pick out of a line-up of Asian eatery owners.
Tall, gangly, white and Afrikaans, Coenraad was most likely as much an anomaly to the nation of South Korea - where he spent three and a half years teaching English –as his new Korean braai spot is to South Africans.
His eatery, open since April 2011, is tucked away down an alley entrance between Loop St and Long St in the city centre, and though it’s still trying to find its feet, it’s the kind of place you could imagine would inspire a committed Cape Town cult following. All the elements are there: an off-beat, novel concept; quirky, industrial décor; a hidden location that breeds some vestige of exclusivity; and, of course, a mouth-watering menu that features both unfamiliar offerings and South African cultural cornerstones (fire and meat).
Galbi, which literally means “rib” in Korean (and which, quite fittingly, is the name of the restaurant), has evolved to become more of a catchphrase for “going to get barbecue,” Coenraad explains. “In Korea, you don’t really drink without eating, so the galbi houses are largely social experiences.”
And though Coenraad and his business partner Louis Smit have, understandably, adapted the notion in a number of ways, their Asian fusion restaurant is, nonetheless, centred on sharing and interacting.
The belly of each of the restaurant’s wooden tables has been hollowed out to make space for an imported Korean grill, and, just above, a maze of copper piping and extractor fans – also of Korean origin – wind their way along the ceiling of the eatery.
With bench seating on either side of the tables, diners sit shoulder to shoulder and across from one another, and, akin to the Swiss past-time of fondue, have the fun of cooking their own meat (or vegetables) over live coals.
The main dishes, served raw and ready to grill, include a hearty selection of Korean flavours and South African mainstays, and alongside the 100g portions of options like ostrich, beef fillet, Daegi Galbi (thin strips of pork belly prepared in a Korean marinade) and vegetarian skewers, diners can order an assortmentof banchan (side dishes), which also feature a fair balance of both local and Asian specialties.
“Gun bae (cheers)!” says Coenraad as he hands me a Cucumber SojuCrush, a brainwave that mixes Jinro Soju – a fermented rice-based Korean alcohol – with cucumber extract, mint leaves, lime juice and freshly pressed pineapple juice in a remarkably refreshing version of a stock-standard mojito.
“Gun bae!” my colleagues and I say in response as we watch him bring the centre of our table to life with a medieval-looking bucket of burning embers.
From that point it’s pure chaos. Like most South Africans, our Korean knowledge base was something to be desired, so Coenraad takes the liberty of both ordering for us and educating us – a point that ensures you take away more from the slightly peculiar eating experience than just a full belly. So, there’s no need to be an expert in Korean cuisine, you merely need to arrive with an appetite, an open mind and a love for the braai; though, even the most unadventurous eater will be happy to hear that meat and mash are readily available for the less experimental.
Next thing, a parade of meat platters rain down from the kitchen, and on their heels a wild assortment of little bowls of tasty accompaniments: Kimchi (Korea’s spicy, fermented Chinese cabbage dish), sweet potato fries with a jalapeno dipping sauce, Sigumchi (spinach tossed with garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds), baked butternut, grilled zucchini and, finally, a traditional Korean Hot Stone pot of Doenjjang Jjigae – a savoury soup of Korean soy bean paste, baby marrow, tofu and potatoes that Koreans typically eat at the end of a meal.
After an overwhelming minute of shock, Coenraad hands us three braai tongs and two sharp scissors meant for cutting the meat into little pieces after cooking.
“Koreans share everything,” he says. “Even if you went to a Spur, they’d cut the steak into little pieces and dish up for everyone,” he encourages us as he elaborates on the point of the scissors.
We look at each other warily, pick up our dainty metal chopsticks (a style unique to Korea) and then, without further ado, cast the meat on the grill and get cooking.
Though a bit touch-and-go at first, the initial whirlwind that descended – a phenomenon that Coenraad pointed out was ever so in-line with the Bali Bali (quickly, quickly) culture of Korea – slowly dissipated, and a meal as rich in banter as it was in taste came to rest.
At the sound of the bell Coenraad comes rushing to the table. As in Korea, they operate on a call system at Galbi – you simply press when you need something; so service is reliable yet not intrusive.
“Is everything alright?” he asks, a concerned look on his face.
“Perfect,” says my colleague,” I just wanted to press the button.”
Tip: Koreans typically roll their galbi into pieces of cos lettuce and then add a number of flavourful fillings. Ask about these wraps, and don’t be afraid to let Coenraad recommend even a few especially foreign-sounding dishes – the food’s delicious.
Opening Hours: Monday: 6pm - 10pm; Tuesday – Saturday: noon - 10pm.
The Bill: Middle of the road. While this certainly isn’t your budget Chinese takeaway, it’s also not five-star Oriental fusion. Starters range from R16 to R45; sides from R18 to R21; individual 100g portions of selected meat from R26 to R46; sharing platters perfect for two range from R200 to R250.
210 Long Street | Alley Entrance on Bloem St | Cape Town | +27 (0) 21 424 3030