Walk up a flight of stairs and down a hallway in a non-descript office building to find Daedongmun, a 40-year old restaurant run by Mun Gwan-seok, with recipes handed down from his North Korean mother. For a restaurant to survive that long in the competitive business district of Yeouido speaks to the quality of their food. It’s a large space with plenty of chairs and floor seating for large office dinners (expect tables of soju-downing office workers on weekday nights), though families also frequent the restaurant, especially on weekends. The star of the menu here is the eobok jaengban, a recipe from royal court cuisine that involves layering finely sliced beef, which has been boiled just enough to lose the fat but not too much flavor, with scallions, crown daisies, oyster mushrooms and winter cabbage in a wide brass pan and boiling it table-side with their secret broth recipe. Take a slice of beef, wrap it around some vegetables and pop it all into your mouth. “But before you mix everything, taste the broth from each side of the dish, north-south-east-west,” Mr. Mun suggests, and he’s right—the flavors are delicately different on each side. The dish overall isn’t strongly flavored—Korean barbecue this is not—but it’s pleasantly addictive and surprisingly filling. If you’re extra hungry, you can order additions of meat, dumplings, noodles or mushrooms at any time. And when you’ve finished most of your stew, order rice and they’ll make fried rice with the leftovers on your hot pan.
So is this “authentic” North Korean food? “No,” Mr. Mun scoffs, readily dispensing with the notion. “What is authentic?” he asks us. “Grandmothers’ taste buds change as they get older, memories fade, even ingredients change over time.” He has a point. And maybe it’s this unpredictability that drives his precision in the kitchen: He uses a different kind of kimchi, seven in total, for the dumplings, the mung bean pancakes and for side dishes. For a brief moment, he shows us the recipe book he keeps in his pocket at all times, with page after page of detailed measurements written out. Sometimes, it’s the simplest flavors that are hardest to create.