Thursday, January 26, 2012

Yangjae Flower Market for Fresh Herbs

I've never had fresh herbs.  If I needed some parsley or something like that for a recipe, I'd use the bottle of dried parsley that came with the spice rack that my mom got when she first came to America twenty plus years ago.  It tasted like shaved cardboard, and apparently, you can't do that.  Dried herbs should be used within 6 months, and they should look perky and eager to be used.  Dried parsley should still be green, and cayenne pepper should be fiery red.  As I've started to cook more and more, I've slowly raised my standards on spices.  Though dried spices are better for certain kinds of recipes (i.e. ones that require long cooking times), I got sick of spatting jealously at recipes that called for fresh sprigs of this and that.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Thanksgiving Dinner: Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

I'm a skins-on kind of gal.
My mom has a great pet peeve.  She hates it when my siblings and I order food at a restaurant that we could easily make at home.  I loved ordering macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.  I had the palate of a 7 year-old ('cause I was).

As we grew older, we learned to make the foods that had caused my mom so much exasperation at restaurants.  My brother learned to make some awesome mac and cheese.  I remember one summer, he stumbled out of his room, having not eaten in three days (he'd been reading all the J. R. R. Tolkien books in succession).  He'd knock everything out of his way and make enough mac and cheese to feed Bangladesh.  Then he'd eat it all and disappear again (to read some more).

My sister and I learned to make some super-garlicky mashed potatoes.  We even had mashed potato cook-offs to the sheer detriment of our familial relationships.  I believe our house was once divided by a meridian of mashed potato preferences.

Al Matto in Haebangchon

It's Halloween.  They don't normally hang spiders around their restaurant.
As someone who knows nothing about business, but knows what to look for in a restaurant, I have a lot to say about Al Matto.  I'm going to need a soap box.

As a new restaurant in Seoul, especially in the Itaewon area where there is a large foreigner population, you should really be supplying a need - a niche if you will.  In other words, there needs to be a food that is different or superbly well done.  Why would I go to your restaurant if I can do it better myself? (Eh hem, Hungry Dog).  I really detest the whole bandwagoning concept behind restaurants.  I feel like some restauranteurs walk into a restaurant and see that it's doing really well selling pizza or kebabs or brunch items, and think, "I can do this too."  *dollar signs*  I have nothing against making money.  Money is fantastic.  But it's painfully obvious when it's the driving factor behind a restaurant.  Such restaurants never last long.  I'm also okay with restaurants that serve food that's not particularly original (pizza, kebabs, or brunch).  But if you're going to do what someone else is already doing (especially in the same neighborhood), do it better than them.  Do it AWESOME (i.e. - Pizza Peel).  

When I walked by the freshly-opened Al Matto, I was excited.  It looked Italian (who doesn't love Italian?), and there was an open kitchen.  Open Kitchens are my reality TV.  

It was also clear that they were still getting things organized.  The menus were on sheets of A4 computer paper stapled together.  All it needed was a coffee stain to look like the kind of crappy paper I would submit in college after an all-nighter.  When I went back a second time, the menu was in an actual booklet though the content had not changed.

Upon closer inspection, none of the food stood out to me.  I was so completely underwhelmed.  Eating at a restaurant is a dining experience.  Believe it or not, a well-designed menu speaks to that dining experience in a big way.  It helps the diner to get a feel of the chef's vision, style and direction.  In that sense, a good menu is not so different from a good resume.  This resume was bad.  I can forgive the misspellings, though it would cost almost nothing to have a native English speaker tick through the menu and save the restaurant the embarrassment.  This menu left me more questions than answers.  One item was simply "pancakes."  What kind of pancakes?  If you're selling just plain, ole pancakes, why am I at this restaurant?  I make fantastic pancakes.  Spruce it up with blueberries, ricotta, chocolate chips, buttermilk...something.  I also think Al Matto would benefit from having the menu in three different translations, especially since the co-owner is Italian.

It became very clear to me what the strong points of Al Matto were when the food came out.  This became even clearer on my second visit.  I didn't think it fair to write a review based on only one visit, especially as they were still in their first few days of opening.  Anyway, strong points - pizza and personality.  The first time I had visited, the Italian waiter (also the co-owner) seemed really quiet; I honestly felt like he was hiding from us.  On the second visit, he was a totally different person - outgoing, charming and accommodating.  It really turned the dining experience around.

Though I was excited about their open kitchen, it's not really open.  The shutters remain closed most of the time.  If they have the option of an open kitchen, they should make it open.  It makes me wonder, "What're they hiding?  Are they washing their hands?"  If the shutters were open, you'd notice that Al Matto has an actual brick pizza oven.  It's a beauty.  And it churns out some excellent pizzas.  It's a shame that their menu is so unfocused.  To give you an example, my sister ordered chili cheese fries while I ordered breakfast and Noel ordered pizza.

Peek-a-boo.  See the pizza oven?
Their standout items are brunch and pizza.  They have a beautiful oven that churns out some beautiful pizzas.  Thin, Neopolitan-style crusts with simple, well-married toppings.

The second pizza, 'Norma', was a surprise.  Eggplant, olives, and a wee bit of Parmesiano Reggiano over some rich passata.  It was a concentrated, piquant combination - one I loved so much I went home and made it.

Their brunch wasn't so good the first time around.  The Al Matto breakfast (12,000 won) is advertised to be fried eggs, French toast, bacon, sausage, beans, grilled tomato, grilled mushrooms, and hashbrowns.  The first time around, they seem to have forgotten the French toast and the beans.  The second time around, the plate has everything, and everything tasted fine.  The hashbrowns are clearly from Costco, and they may need some practice making eggs.  The portion of beans was a bit small, but the mix of mushrooms was great.  The proteins were cooked well, and the sausage was amazing.  They use good-quality sausage.  Anything with egg in it (french toast, fried eggs, and omelette) wasn't cooked very well.

 The omelette was slightly overcooked on the outside, but the omelette itself wasn't bad.  The accompanying potatoes weren't seasoned.

Overall, the dining experience only improved with consequent visits.  I would recommend their Al Matto breakfast because it offers a better value than competing brunch sets in the area (Hungry Dog, Indigo's, etc.).  I liked having French toast with my breakfast in addition to the yummy sausage they use.  If not brunch, I would definitely check out their pizzas.  They're not amazing, but they're delicious and offer slightly more creative options than other pizza joints.

Directions: From Noksapyeong Station, Exit 2, walk straight until you reach the kimchee pots.  Veer left as you enter the neighborhood of Haebangchon.  Keep walking straight, passing Phillie's and Jacoby's Burgers.  On the left, you'll see Al Matto right across the street from a butcher.

Al Matto can be found on MangoPlate, a restaurant discovery app available in English and Korean.


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