Restaurant hunting is a risky business. If you're lucky you end up with a full belly and a smile on your face, if not you could end up hungry and miserable or even worse. I had a very lucky escape this weekend when I decided to try the Noxa lounge in Noksapyeong.
It's a cool looking, hip and groovy kind of place, almost on the edge of Haebangcheon and Hannah Bae of the JoongAng Daily had already given it a decent review, so I thought I would sample the lunch set menu. There were several options on the menu and I decided to go for one of the daily pasta specials. Pesto cream pasta and a mussel and oil spaghetti were on offer, I went for the pesto...
Service was friendly and the food came out quickly, but as the plate touched the table and I bent my head down to savour the aroma of basil and pine nuts I got a whiff of something altogether unexpected.
Before I continue I just want to state that the following description of the food is my opinion and mine alone, perhaps my olfactory senses are off, perhaps I was having a bad day, perhaps there are taste sensations with which I am unfamiliar. For all I know the smells and flavours presented to me at Noxa are par for the course, but this pesto smelt like no other I have known. Have you ever done the washing up and left a plate, bowl or cup with a little water in it and stacked it with the others? If you have you may recall that said piece of crockery can develop a sour unpleasant smell that screams "UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!" as it wafts through your nostrils. The smell coming from my pesto cream pasta was just a little bit similar to that. The taste... slightly worse. I didn't taste pesto, just something unrecognisable and the smell kept on cutting through any other flavour sensation.
The waiter came over and asked if anything was wrong and I tried to explain to him that there was some strange smell coming from my food, he brought over the chef who (without smelling the dish herself) tried to explain the cause of it. She thought it was the garlic or perhaps the strong smell of parmesan cheese. I said that I was perfectly at home to both those fragrances and that it was some other smell that was getting to me. The chef then explained that she crushes the garlic in advance and that the taste changes over time. The garlic in my meal had been crushed three days before and so the flavour and scent had developed.
Hannah Bae described the pesto as a "glorious green", judge for yourselves...
In all fairness the chef offered to make me a different dish, but I just couldn't stomach it. I've never had garlic that smelt like that and I had no wish to sample any other dishes. Maybe it is my taste buds, maybe I'm a freshly crushed garlic snob, whatever the case I didn't want to hang around. I made my excuses and left.
Lost and lonely, I staggered onto the street and stumbled up the hill looking for some kind of culinary solace. I wanted comfort food, something to take the taste of restaurant hunter's defeat from my mouth. As I walked towards the Hyatt Hotel I saw my salvation:
Mao! Chinese food, comforting and simple, was the remedy I needed. I ventured inside and was shocked by how beautiful the restaurant is.
I didn't want to spoil other people's lunches by taking pictures of them, so my few snaps don't do justice to how gorgeous Mao looks. Dark wooden shelves and jars of colourful herbs give great character to the place and the dark reds and greens on the walls bring a sense of comfort and luxury.
The semi-open kitchen with its hanging poultry made me fall in love with the restaurant in no time at all.
As I was eating by myself I skipped past the more expensive items and went straight for the rice/noodle menu. The usual suspects, fried rice and black bean noodles were there (5,000 to 10,000 won) along with a rather interesting little dish: Duck Fried Rice with Abalone Sauce (10,000 won). I adore duck and rarely get a chance to eat it in Korea, so I knew exactly what I wanted.
I also spied this cute little dimsum cart, with seven different options. I went for the garlic chive and prawn dumplings (6,000 won).
The duck arrived first and was divine. A very generous portion of meat with some skin, mixed with red and green peppers, thick slices of oak mushroom and large chunks of onion. The rice was not fried, just boiled and sat hidden under the sticky brown layer of duck. From the very first bite I was in duck heaven, everything was cooked to perfection and the strong flavour of the duck mixed well with the deliciously unctuous abalone sauce.
The flavours took me back to my days as a student in London, when I would head to the back streets of Leicester Square and fill up on cold duck, bok-choi and boiled rice. Real nostalgic comfort food.
The dish was served with a seafood broth containing a solitary mussel, good for cutting through the fattiness of the duck.
The dumplings arrived soon after the duck, they were incredibly sticky and very delicious.
After my first aborted attempt at lunch, Mao was a godsend. Good service, excellent food and a very pleasant atmosphere. I'm excited to go back and try their Beijing Duck and cold honey-roast pork. Definitely worth the hike up the hill.
Mao is about 300 metres down the hill from the Grand Hyatt Hotel and is opposite the Sri Lankan embassy. Call them on 02 793 8845.