In the late 90's Bali looked as if it was about to be over-run with Korean restaurants. They were everywhere even featuring as the main restaurant in some major hotels. The baton, for Bali's best Korean, changed hands quite regularly.
Post 2002, and during the following problem times of SARS and Bird Flu, the Korean tourists disappeared, and so to did many of their restaurants. Some of the old signs still hang from upstairs windows and balconies in the Kuta area, though the restaurants may have long gone.
Recent years have seen a quiet upsurge in both the numbers of Korean tourists and the re-appearance of Korean specialty restaurants. The Grill House is considered by the local Korean community to be one of the best. It is very large. It needs to be to accommodate the groups that flock there, but the restaurant still maintains a level of compactness by the placement of movable wall partitions, giving some level of privacy. There are also a couple of private dining rooms for those who can sit like that!
However it is a grill house and many of the Korean dishes on offer are therefore cooked that way, either on the central table cooking device [an extendable tube is lowered from the overhead exhaust fan system to create draught on the hot coals and to eliminate steam and cooking smells from inside the restaurant] or on an inverted hubcap [same shape as a sailor?s hat] a tin dome surrounded by a draining rim. A small gas ring [kept under the table in a small drawer] is placed on the table, the cooking dish on top of that.
Bulgogi and Kimchee, are two of the most recognisable items from Korean cuisine. Both feature very prominently at The Grill House. Bulgogi is sliced beef pre-marinated with onions and garlic in sesame oil and soy. The strips are cooked on the dome by the waiter, the fats and juices draining away to the rim. A plate of lettuce and cabbage leaves provide the Korean method of eating, wrapping pieces of the meat in a leaf and dipping into a Korean sauce of blended soy bean paste and chilli. I prefer to eat using a bowl of rice as the catch all, in the more general Asian style. Stainless steel chopsticks, of the long thin variety, are a bit classier than the rough wooden ones as commonly provided with other Asian cuisines. An small ceramic mug of broth accompanies the Bulgogi, to be sipped throughout rather than taken as a western style soup.
At all Korean meals small bowls of cold vegetables, to pick at before and during the meal, are provided for the table. The most famous of which is Kimchee, sheaves of thin cabbage leaves [napa cabbage otherwise called Chinese cabbage] pickled in what looks like chilli but is in fact dried ground very hot red pepper. At The Grill House five such offerings are always presented, they always include serves of kimchee, marinated eggplant, green beans, and raw chunks of cassava [which is also peppery].
Whilst they do not refer to them as such, a few of the dishes here could be termed entrees, although the locals just order a vast array of dishes, to enjoy a wide range of tastes. Gunmandu are fried dumplings, the pastry thin and crisp the stuffing full of minced pork, the dip a standard one. They refer to Haemul Pajeon as a pancake but in reality it is more like a flat omelette, minced seafood and chopped scallions encased in pan-fried egg. These two dishes make a good contrast to the grilled meats if a spread of dishes is to be ordered for the table.
Both Pork and Beef Ribs are served here, unlike when cooked in other styles these are usually off the bone, the thin strips of meat, pre-marinated, are spread over the centre table grill until cooked to your taste. Similar cooking is with the grilled beef [tenderloin or sirloin, marinated or not], beef tongue, pork belly and the Mixed Kebab [selection of meat, fish and vegetables, all large chunks on wooden skewers]. The Grilled Sausage selection is prepared for you in the kitchen.
Dakdoritang is a very spicy hot chicken stew, finished off in a glass topped ceramic pan placed on that table gas ring. The chicken is on the bone and the main accompaniment is many half potatoes and a few onions. The resultant stew is spooned into smaller personal pots for each diner. Other similar dishes include Seafood and Soy Bean Paste, Sweet Beef and Noodle, Oxen Knee Bone, Pork and Kimchee. Samgyetang is a chicken stew with rice, ginseng and other herbs added. For the very adventurous, try Gopchang Jeongol [beef stomach linings and other assorted intestines].
Individual dishes include soups [the very good Mandukuk dumpling soup and Sunde Kuk of assorted sausage, as well as Spicy Seafood or their version of the Thai standard Tom Yam Goong, very different is 'Cow Head Soup'], buckwheat noodles hot or cold, rice bowls with a variety of toppings [spicy squid, mixed vegetables or beef topped with a fried egg] and individual dishes such as Pork Cutlet.
Not all Korean food is hot and spicy but those dishes described as such are seriously hot, more peppery than chilli hot, meant to warm you on those cold snow bound days. However the vast majority of dishes are not hot in fact they are very basic with soy as the main flavour. As with all Asian cuisines there are many vegetarian dishes but without much variety in their cooking style or taste.
A Korean meal is ideal for a group night out, seeking to explore something different, perfect for those who can dine with an open mind. A small taste of many different dishes is far preferable than the solo ordering I see all over Bali in Asian restaurants by those who sadly do not fully understand how to enjoy Asian cuisine.
The baton is now with The Grill House as Bali's best Korean. It is a vastly different cuisine to any other in Asia, let alone the rest of the world.