MANILA -- Filipinos are going gaga over all things Korean — may it be music, dramas, beauty products, and even, if we judge by the number of Korean barbecue joints found all around the metro, even food.
Enter Goryeo at Okada Manila.
I didn’t regularly watch "Jewel in the Palace," but from the snippets that I’ve seen here and there, Goryeo would be like a modern equivalent of that place.
Walking a narrow wood-framed hallway opens up to a big room with wooden tables, golden stoves, and wall hangings with Korean writing -- it’s an ambiance that feels very serene. The service staff in their uniforms are in the corners, quiet and ready to serve. You feel like a princess in a fictional land, but that would be another telenovela, a Filipino top-rated one.
Now onto the food!
Chef Hojin Lee helms the kitchen with 18 years of experience around the globe. Marrying authentic Korean cooking techniques and the finest ingredients with his experience and market sense makes for some interesting takes on Korean cuisine.
Like any Korean restaurant, banchan is always served. You’ve got the usuals that rotate every so often – the spicy cabbage, the seasoned seaweed, those little sweet fried fish (myulchi bokkeum), various pickled vegetables, and of course, kimchi. I count myself as a kimchi connoisseur, and I can honestly say I’ve never had sweet klimchi like the one served in Goryeo before.
“We made it a bit sweet to suit the Filipino palate,” said Lee.
Indeed for the Filipino palate, this kimchi hits all the right things -- sweetness, salt, and a touch of sourness. It’s the Filipino trifecta of things we like with an added bonus because it’s also spicy. But not as spicy as most kimchi, and as a kimchi lover, it took a while to get used to it (about three refills) and while it’s not my favorite kimchi, as I like mine extra sour more than anything else, I wouldn’t refuse another little bowl (or three) of it again, to be honest. Also, it’s a great first kimchi to those just being introduced to the flavors of the fermented side dish.
Next up was Korean pancake and Goryeo's version is thick -- think okonomiyaki thick.
The story goes that during Lee’s Japanese stint, he found that the Japanese liked their Korean pancakes okonomiyaki-like, and so he decided that in Goryeo, it would the same.
What we have is a pancake loaded with seafood and veggies held together with the barest bit of batter, so we had seafood and green onion at every bite. If you want something light, this isn’t the pancake that you’re looking for. But if you’re looking for something hearty, just don’t forget to drizzle on top or dip the pancake into the accompanying honey vinegar sauce, and who knows? This may become your Goryeo favorite.
Our culinary foray then made its way onto the Korean staples.
Begging for a cup of rice, Goryeo’s Galbi Jjim (braised shortribs with vegetables) was not as sweet as others we’ve tasted, and wasn’t overly thick, it also had a kick in the end which wasn’t unwelcome. I had chewy beef pieces, and others that melted in my mouth, so it was adventure to eat this, but I could always go back to the rice with the sauce to keep me eating.
One of my favorite things in Korean cuisine is Kimchi Jjigae (pork and kimchi stew), and I feared that I would get a sweet soup instead of the daring punchy spicy flavors of the stew that I love, but perhaps Chef Lee might be hiding another jar of non-sweet kimchi in the kitchen, or maybe he does some kind of magic because the steaming pot of stew we were served was on point -- bracingly sour and spicy. And yes, we had the soup over rice, and I definitely would come back and order this again and be very happy.
We also had the Japchae, sweet potato noodles with vegetables and beef. It’s a sweet-salty dish that leans more towards sweet, and was light on the soy.
But if it comes to spending my carbs, I’d rather eat the next dish -- Goryeo’s Dolsot (stone pot) Bibimbap over the noodles every time. Steamed rice, beef, veggies, spicy sauce, and raw egg are mixed together in a stone pot.
In a table full of things to eat, this got decimated (with an ending that involved some bowl scraping). It had just the right balance of spicy, salty, sweet, squishy and creamy, meaty, with crunch coming from the veggies. It’s a great meal in itself with plus points because ordering this also comes with seaweed soup and a salad.
Finally, we get to the Korean barbecue.
While Goryeo has multiple set meals involving different types of beef or meats, if you’re in a big group, go for the Sogogi Modeum Gui (special assorted beef set).
Outside skirt steak, boneless short rib, and brisket are cooked on fancy golden smokeless grills. Wrap these along with your choice of trimmings (fresh or grilled garlic, scallions, and grilled mushrooms) with your chosen leaf, then dip into your choice of sauce. In Goryeo, there are three -- a yakiniku sauce (another nod to Lee’s roots), sea salt with a bit of nori, and of course, ssamjang.
Endings in Goryeo come sweet and cold with housemade ice cream. Choose between vanilla or matcha.
At Okada to see the fountain? Or perhaps a spot of gambling? Goryeo can be accessed through the casino, tucked away at a little corner with Okada’s other signature restaurants (including a Japanese sushi bar that seats only nine).
Just a tip, if you love Korean food and you want things Korean spice-level authentic, tell your waiter, and ready your taste buds because chef Lee can make that happen for you.