Born and Bred – Seoul, South Korea
We've all heard of wagyu beef, Japan's absurdly marbled steaks that, according to urban legend, come from cows treated like kings––given massages and served premium Japanese sake and beer, for example. But just a three hour flight away, Korea has its own premium beef that you can't find pretty much anywhere outside of the markets of Seoul and Busan. Hanwoo, a bovine breed much like the various breeds of wagyu cattle in Japan, is considered one of Korea's most prized delicacies, and Chef Jung Sang-won has constructed a temple to the ultra-rare Korean breed right across the street from Seoul's most sprawling meat market.
Jung came into the hanwoo business via his father, who sold hanwoo at the Majang meat market for much of his life. On the upper floor of Majang are many casual restaurants where patrons will bring the hanwoo acquired downstairs and grill it themselves over charcoal. Jung wanted to pay homage to this experience while elevating it, and opened Born and Bred as a multi-level, multi-concept butcher shop and restaurant with glimmering, Hollywood-like touches and a decidedly international flair. On the first floor is the butcher shop, while the second floor offers a casual experience and the third floor private rooms for sprawling hanwoo-based tasting menus. The basement contains a tiny kitchen counter speakeasy-style space where ten lucky diners can feast on nearly 20 courses in a distinctly beefy take on a Japanese omakase meal, all cooked by Chef Jung himself.
As is true with many of the most exclusive dining experiences in east Asia, it proved impossible to get a reservation for the feast in the basement despite multiple emails and WhatsApp messages; a phone call would have been about as effective as my ability to communicate in Korean. But the private room on the third floor, offering a shorter, but still impressive progression of hanwoo and other Korean dishes, had availability online, and knowing that mom wanted beef for her birthday dinner, I snapped up a private room where we headed to celebrate mama and see if hanwoo was, indeed, what many online had said:
A wagyu killer.
Were they right? Keep reading to find out!
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We had our pre-dinner drinks at Zest, which Georgia and I agreed might be the best bar on the planet based on our short visit. Standing for "Zero Waste," Zest is the first "bar of the future," and combined the talents of four of Korea's most talented mixologists to create a no-waste bar that focuses on upcycling ingredients and sourcing from local distilleries and purveyors whenever possible. And the results are mind blowing. Here's a sampling of some of what we tried.
We grabbed a cab over to the east side of central Seoul after beverages, ready to devour some beef. The building is quite a complex, devoted entirely to hanwoo. We were sat at the tables on the first floor in the butcher shop, beholding the refrigerated cases of beautiful cuts ready to be grilled and savored.
It didn't take long for us to be escorted upstairs to our private room, decked out with stately forest green and brushed copper, and housing a long table with a charcoal burner at the end. Shortly after we sat down, a chef appeared with the first three cuts of hanwoo, fired up the grill, and got to work, while we popped a half bottle of Charles Heidsieck rosé Champagne, and toasted mama's birthday!
Amuse bouche bites came first, three for each of us, and all beef-based––a beef fat rice cracker, terrine of beef tendon with local citrus and coriander, and bresaola with fig. The bresaola was the clear standout.
As our personal chef continued to grill the hanwoo over the charcoal and the heady aroma of seared beef met our noses, a second little round of small bites found its way to our table. None of these was particularly memorable, but that might have been because we were so consumed by the scent of rendering beef fat! A stuffed morel, slice of abalone, slice of sea cucumber, and beef and pork dumpling formed the four bites. I gotta say, sea cucumber is something I've had a few times at Korean joints and I've never been a fan.
Since beef was forthcoming, it was time to open some red wine. Gaja is an important producer for the family because he made the wine we enjoyed at the French Laundry on our trip that celebrated the life of our father right after his death, and when I snuck away to find a nice wine for dinner and found a Gaja Barbaresco at the local wine shop in Gangnam, I was thrilled that we'd get to share a bottle again for Mom's birthday.
Gaja normally makes several micro-expressions of Barbaresco, but in 2018 there was a tremendous hailstorm in Piemonte that tore up several of the vineyards, so the 2019 vintage for Gaja was a selection of the best fruit from all the various vineyard sites he uses. The result was a nebbiolo that was young, but by no means unfinished, with magnificent cherries and earth underneath a thrilling, bright acidity. His wines are so good.
Tenderloin was the first cut, and I was thrilled to see black truffles freshly grated tableside to accompany, which would be a particularly spectacular accompaniment to the Gaja. The meat itself was breathtaking.
Sirloin was next, cooked a bit harder and served alongside a yuzu mustard, which the chef said helps lift the beefier cuts.
Last, a very thin cut of fatty chuck was cooked quickly and doused in a magnificent garlic sauce. A more Korean-style take, and it was fantastic.
A formidable initial progression of beef, indeed, with another series of cuts displayed to us right after the plates were cleared.
A little satchel holding cod and beef rib was the "surf and turf" course, cooked briefly over the charcoal and then opened and seared with a butane torch. As with most things that were not exclusively hanwoo in this meal, this course was fine, but nothing to write home about.
The second triumvirate of beef cuts was ready shortly after our surf and turf was cleared. The first was a fantastic skirt steak with a killer crust and the aromatic acidity of pickled lily flower. Might have been the bite of the night.
Short rib is a cornerstone of Korean grilled meat, and this short rib immersed in an umami-laden onion sauce offered mouthwatering fattiness, the first cut that I found approximated the marbling of hanwoo's Japanese sibling.
Last, hanger steak was unadulterated and served with just salt and pepper and some magnificent char. With less fat and more mineral, beefy quality, it made clear that hanwoo was a different type of animal––instead of focusing strictly on marbling like wagyu, the hanwoo cuts are a bit more diverse, but still just as superlative in quality.
A take on a Japanese katsu sandwich came next, with a breaded beef rib and onions set between two slices of melty brioche. Delicious.
Another seafood course, also underwhelming, unfortunately, offered sea snails in their shells. Certainly pretty, and nothing short of tasty, but without any of the glory of the beef courses.
We cracked our second bottle of red, hauled all the way to Seoul from California wine country in my checked luggage. Larry Hyde owns one of the most prized vineyards in Carneros, the bay-adjacent lowlands hugging the very south reaches of the mountains that form the borders between North Bay valleys. Cool and foggy, with soils that tend to produce wines with lovely spice and earth, Carneros is most known for pinot noir, but Larry Hyde grows all sorts of varietals on this parcel, and the merlot is particularly beautiful year-over-year. The 2016 vintage was killer across California, but the cooler year left a healthy amount of peppery flavor in the already-cool merlot block on the Hyde property. Seven years later, it's one of the best wines from Napa County I've tried, and was a lovely step up in body and gravity from the Gaja.
Sadly for us, we weren't aware that the last beef course was to come right after opening the Hyde, and well before any of us were ready to stop eating hanwoo. Fatty cuts were thinly sliced and cooked in a sauce of tropical fruits, served with two types of milt roe and kimchi. It was delicious, but when we started to see our chef disassembling our charcoal grill, we quickly protested and asked him to bring us a menu so we might add some additional beef.
It was a quick and easy choice––we added another tenderloin, which was Mom's favorite, as well as a ribeye, which we hadn't tried yet. The charcoal grill was reassembled, condiments distributed, and the meat grilled once again to perfection.
Two soups closed the savory courses––the first a jjim with gorgeous vegetables and the lovely, tangy heat of kimchi, and the second a ramen made with a cut of beef.
Finally, a sesame ice cream offered salty and sweet notes to close the meal alongside our remaining quaffs of Hyde merlot.
If you find yourself visiting the vast Korean capital, seek out hanwoo; the third floor at Born and Bred is a wonderful place to get a comprehensive sampling of the wonderful delicacy. As Korean fare increases in popularity in the US, I am hopeful we will maybe one day see hanwoo grace American kitchens! Until then, a pilgrimage to Seoul is a worthwhile journey in order to sample this superlative beef.