An unconventional twist on stolid Korean cuisine
Since its understated reopening on Mac Thi Buoi some 18 months ago, Won’s Cuisine (49 Mac Thi Buoi, D1) has enjoyed a somewhat gentle renaissance. It’s only now that it’s beginning to gather notoriety as one of the city’s most important Korean venues – and not for reasons of authenticity, but rather for straying from the norms. Even if you’re not particularly partial to Korean food, this is the one that will win you over – and it all comes down to the restaurant’s fascinating proprietress Alexis Won, who has infused so much of her own quirky tastes into the menu that she’s completely ignored the conventions of the cuisine.
The result is neither an exercise in fusion nor localization – it’s just a slice of Alexis’ own personal Korea, and it’s perfectly dreamy. Every item on Won’s menu is the way it is for essentially personal reasons: Alexis being a finicky eater with eccentric tastes, this means that each of the dishes are fastidiously healthy, pathologically flavorsome, and one-of-a-kind. “I’m always eating things my own way,” she confesses. “If I go to McDonald’s, I dip the french fries in the sundae. I eat kimchi soup with cheese. My whole menu is based on my own style.” Blending her own special recipes with those loved by her family, Won’s cuisine is straight from the heart, and you can taste it – even the kimchi we snack on while choosing our main dishes is an eyebrowraiser. Kimchi is supposed to be tart and astringent – not Won’s: “We make it every two days,” Alexis explains. “Mature kimchi is sour. We make our noodles fresh, and only fresh kimchi goes with fresh noodles. It’s not really economical to make noodles like that – most Korean restaurants here import theirs or use instant noodles. But I can’t stand the taste of instant and I worry that the imported stuff might have Chinese chemicals in it. So we just make them anyway. Our margins are lower, but at least the taste is good.”
A Twist on the Familiar
Every item on the menu seems to have its own similar story. We start with a selection of dumplings: “Korean dumplings are normally too large,” she says. “So I asked an Italian chef to suggest how to make smaller ones. I call them ‘baby dumplings’ (VND150,000) – you’ll only find them in my restaurant.” The deep-fried dumplings (VND150,000) are based on a similar experiment, twice-fried to keep them crispy and thoroughly drained of oil to keep them light. You’ll be hard-pressed finding other deep-fried dishes anywhere else that actually taste like they’re good for you. The vegetarian dumplings (VND120,000) are stuffed with sweet potato noodles, of all things – that just came out of Alexis’ imagination, and they’re unreal. Familiar Korean dishes each have their own twist. The soft bean curd soup (VND140,000) is made richer and sweeter by slow-boiling the seafood and vegetable broth for longer than is usual. The mixed Korean pancake set (VND150,000) tastes more like a tempura, with the odors from the herbs completely removed by using the pancake mixture with ice water. Won’s fine beef ribs (VND420,000) are unmistakable for their quality. As she puts it, “I only use American beef. I’m picky and cheap meat just smells.”
The menu’s presiding dishes are the shabu shabu noodles – we select the beef fillet with assorted veggies (VND390,000/2 people) which proceeds like a four-course meal. It begins with a rich vegetable soup in pork bone broth, which becomes a regular hotpot once you crunch through a good portion of the veggies. As the remainder of the soup begins to evaporate, Won’s homemade noodles are added to produce a creamy stirfry not unlike a soupy pasta. This dish has a twist – finish the noodles, and a saucer of rice and egg are added to the remainder and cooked as delicious fried rice. “Customers have asked me for the rice as a standalone dish,” Alexis tells me, “but it’s impossible – you can only get that taste at the end of the process.” Sadly, Won’s other specialty was unavailable on the meal we dined – if you want to try zombie octopus here (Google it) you’re advised to call ahead to check if they have it. The cuisine is dramatic in its simplicity, and you’ll leave the venue feeling that no matter how much you’ve indulged, you’ve still ended up doing your body a favor.