Saying that Korean culture has made a big splash on our shores is a huge understatement. From songs to TV shows to fashion to food, South Korea hasn’t just influenced our daily lives—their culture has actually become part of the mainstream. As a chef, I’ve always thought of Korean food as an easy pleaser. Having a couple of dominant flavors and a few essential ingredients like Korean chili and miso pastes, you’d be hard-pressed to find really bad Korean food. It all seems so simple, a bit of meat or seafood, some garlic, leeks, a bit of Gochujang paste and sesame oil and you have a decent Korean dish. For me, consistency and simplicity make good eating, and with a few kitchen staples, cooking and eating Korean is pretty foolproof.
The seeming simplicity of Korean cooking can, of course, be double-edged. If most places serve okay to good food, how can a Korean restaurant rise above everyone else and serve patrons great meals? How, with similar flavors, basic ingredients and cooking methods can a restaurant distinguish itself from the ho-hum?
As most someone who has been to quite a few Korean restaurants, I tend to already know what to expect. Good meats to be cooked at the table, check. Homemade Banchan that’s unlimited, check. Fresh vegetables, good rice plus a few standard dishes from the kitchen, check. That’s usually all we’ve come to expect from any decent Korean place. So when I got the invite to try out Gaja Korean Kitchen, I was pretty confident I’d be having an agreeable meal because “who does bad Korean?”
As soon as I entered Gaja, I thought to myself, “Oh, it’s modern Korean. I hope they don’t do fusion.” Unlike the normal Korean restaurants with chimneys and grills at every table, old wooden furniture and food and drink posters serving as art adorning the walls, Gaja’s interiors are bright and airy, very upscale Asian bistro. There are digital murals that cover entire walls, decorative patterned wooden dividers and a lighted display wall that creatively uses Soju bottles as décor along with some earthen jars. What I didn’t know was that there was something hidden behind that wall, but I’ll get to that later.
With our host, coowner Terence Lim telling the Cook team all about Gaja, we got on to the best part—the eating. We started with Deep Sea Pajeon, a crispy on the outside, chewy and briny on the inside Korean pancake. My worries about being served “food with a twist,” that cliché that fusion restaurants always use to describe what they do, were laid to rest from the first appetizer we had. It was straight-up Korean, done well but plated better. Since my worries were gone, I was now excited for the rest. Next up was their Bulgogi and Kimchi Mandu, a Korean pot sticker similar to Japan’s Gyoza. Sweet and savory beef, sour and spicy Kimchi and velvety cheese all wrapped in thin dumpling dough, shaped into a pillow and steam-fried. Another Korean classic is Kimbap, their version of what we more popularly know as maki rolls. Gaja’s Samgyeopsal Kimbap is a marriage of two popular Korean foods, using the popular grilled pork belly slices to wrap the Samjjang rice and pickles. Genius.
Among classic Korean dishes there are few that are as iconic as Bibimbap, Galbi-jjim and Osam Bulgogi. These dishes are popular for a reason—they already taste awesome! While I appreciated the little tweaks they did for the appetizers, I was unsure if Gaja’s chefs can still pull it off for such iconic main dishes. To the Cook team’s collective surprise, their reinterpreted Korean classics were amazing! Just like what they did with the appetizers, changes were done to enhance and improve the dishes, not to confuse the diner. The alterations were done with dining pleasure in mind, to improve on the dishes, not to feed the chef’s ego or just to look creative and current (which so many “modern” restaurants do).
Upon meeting the man at the helm of Gaja’s kitchen, I was pleasantly surprised. Here was this young, unassuming man who obviously knows what he’s doing. Chef Marc Justin Tee isn’t your typical brash, in-your-face young gunslinger. He was modest and worked hard and studied Korean cuisine well. He took advantage of a scholarship offer in Korea and lived and breathed their food and culture, and it shows in his menu. As much as he has altered, he has retained. The soul of Korean food is intact in all his dishes, no matter how updated and tweaked they may be.
Gaja’s Ribimbap is an example of how they modernize and improve classics. And no, that wasn’t a typo, it’s really Ribimbap, named after the cubes of beef rib-eye that replaces the chopped beef in the normal version of the dish. Served with blanched veggies and a Gochujang butter that makes the dish milder than your normal Bibimbap but richer and more savory.
Another must-try dish is the Galbi-jjim, this time without the sweet broth it usually comes with. Gaja’s version is cooked low and slow under vacuum, sous vide as it’s more popularly known. The 48-hour slow braise ensures not only fall-off-the-bone tender meat, the vacuum also helps in letting the seasoning seep deep inside the meat. The result is a large piece of Kitayama Wagyu short rib packed with concentrated Galbi-jjim flavor. If you can imagine the usual Galbi stew, concentrate the broth and inject it into the meat fibers—that’s how Gaja’s Galbi-jjim tastes like—different but the same and definitely better.
Osam is Korea’s answer to surf and turf. Squid and pork belly may not be a common combination in other countries, but the Koreans do theirs really well. Gaja’s Osam may not be recognizable to the average Korean, but their deconstructed version has some purpose to it. Instead of mixing all the ingredients and serving it on a hot plate as what’s traditionally done, Gaja’s version of Osam has the whole chunk of pork belly cooked crispy, which makes the dish even better than the original. Served with Kimchi rice-stuffed whole squid, Gaja’s Osam is a smart reinvention of the original dish, which is good, but can get tiresome after a few bites.
After all that sumptuous food, we of course still had room for dessert and drinks. For the sweet endings, we got to try their Korean Chili Lava Cake, a spiced version of the well-loved dessert; and their Black Sesame Crème Brulee, a Korean play on the classic custard.
Now back to that display wall I was talking about. Among the Soju bottles decorating that wall was one that served as a switch. Pushing down on the bottle opened up what seemed like a wall covered in a modern Korean image. Behind the trap door is a whole new world hidden from the diners—The Odd Seoul, a Korean-themed bar. This hidden bar serves as place for some Soju-based drinks, craft beers and an area to unwind and party the night away. Among their specialty drinks are the Kimchi Sour and Smoking Tiger. While I am not much of a drinker, I did enjoy their creative cocktails. The bar’s interiors make you feel as if you stepped right into Gangnam district through the subway.
There is nothing better than enjoying good food and having a few drinks after. With Gaja Korean Kitchen and The Odd Seoul, you get to do both in one place. If, like many Filipinos, you enjoy Korean food and culture, you owe it to yourself to visit Gaja and Odd Seoul. They may have taken liberties in interpreting the Korean experience, but trust that what they’ve done was make it better.
Gaja Korean Kitchen and The Odd Seoul are located 8445 Kalayaan Avenue, Poblacion, Makati City.