Don’t take it from me — Seorae’s global website describes Seorae as an “authentic Korean BBQ restaurant where you can have valuable dining experiences with charcoal roasted juicy meat and various a la carte Korean dishes.” With this formula, Seorae operates more than 200 restaurants in Korea and has expanded internationally through franchising in Singapore, Hong Kong, the US and elsewhere.
In Hong Kong, Seorae has branches in Wanchai, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. I visited the original Wanchai branch a couple of times — it’s located on the third floor of the Capital Building on Lockhart Road, and is impressive for its massive size and generous spacing between tables.
The menu is focused on barbecue, with pork and beef predominating. I have tried the signature galmaegi (special pork skirtmeat, HKD158 per order), the special pork skirtmeat with spicy sauce (HKD168 per order) and the grilled beef Seorae-style (otherwise known as bulgogi, HKD138).
The pork skirt dishes are the highlight of the barbecue experience at Seorae. Pork skirt is a relatively small cut — at less than 300 grams per pig — and Seorae claims to have a proprietary method to butcher, marinate and tenderize the cut. The skirt meat is redder in color and “beefier” in flavor than other cuts of pork. It has a rich flavor and is juicier than other Korean cuts of pork such as ssamgyupsal, which resembles a thick-cut bacon.
In terms of service, the first time at Seorae, when I sat near the center, the staff were attentive – ensuring that the grill was changed when needed and the pork cooked not too quickly, nor too slowly for a perfectly tender and juicy result. There was also a steady stream of side dishes, including spicy kimchi, and condiments for the meat such as garlic and the greens called ssamchu for wrapping, along with sesame oil with salt and ssamjang, the condiment made with bean and chili pastes, sesame oil, onion, garlic, green onions and perhaps a pinch of sugar. I liked both the spicy and non-spicy versions of the galmaegi for variety on the palate.
The steamed egg cooked in the trough that circles each grill, however, is the highlight of the Seorae experience.
Steamed egg is a typical side dish at Korean barbecue restaurants, often served fluffy after steaming in a hot clay pot. At Seorae in Wan Chai, like they do at its branches in Korea, as the meat grills on the barbecue, the creamy batter of raw, beaten egg is poured from a large pitcher into two sections of the trough — one which contains diced kimchi and the other grated cheese. The egg cooks slowly at the sides of the grill so that optimally it is just firm and ready to eat mid-way through consuming a portion of meat for a delicious accompaniment. The bits of kimchi add a piquant flavor to the steamed egg, while the cheese side is luxuriously creamy. Even better, as the egg is consumed, the staff comes back and pours a new batch, free flow as if it were champagne at a brunch.
Unfortunately, on my second visit in a smaller group and in the back the staff were less attentive, leaving us to fend for ourselves with the barbecue for a more uneven result. The pitcher of egg was also not seen again after the initial pour. We could have, of course, been more aggressive in seeking help, but part of the fun the first time was to be engaged in conversation with friends while the restaurant ensured that everything else was done just so.
In terms of other barbecue items, the bulgogi was thinly sliced and lightly marinated, as is typical. With the grill slightly too hot, it cooked too quickly and tended to stick so one had to be vigilant to ensure it didn’t burn. The quality of the meat was average. I would stick to the pork skirt or thicker cuts of beef.
Beyond barbecue, Seorae has a selection of soups, Korean pancakes and rice and noodle dishes. I tried the neng myeon, buckwheat noodles with cold broth (HKD85), and the seafood and kimchi pancake (HKD90). Neng myeon is a classic summer dish in Korea. Buckwheat noodles similar to soba (but thinner) and cooked soft are served in an icy broth that is traditionally pheasant-based. The cold soup is classically garnished with shredded cucumber, a hardboiled egg, a slice of crunchy Korean pear and a slice of beef all served with vinegar and hot mustard to taste. The cold clean taste of the noodles is a satisfying complement after indulging on the heavy taste of fatty meat from the grill.
The version at Seorae was decent and certainly identifiable as the cold noodle dish you would find in Korea. However, it wasn’t sufficiently cold. In Korea, it is usually served with ice cubes visible in the broth, while at Seorae in Hong Kong, it was what you might call luke-cold. In addition, the noodles seemed a bit limp, as if they had been in the broth too long. There was no slice of pear or meat, but instead a rather thick slice of tomato which wasn’t particularly appetizing.
In Hong Kong and globally, Korean pancakes (called jjun) have become increasingly popular in their many varieties. Seorae has a selection of four — seafood and green onion, seafood and kimchi, potato and corn. The seafood and kimchi pancake which I tried was tasty with a pleasantly soft texture and tangy flavor from the kimchi well in evidence. My only complaint was that for a pancake advertised as seafood and kimchi there was little seafood in evidence. Still, it was a good side dish with an authentic taste.
All in all, the strengths of Seorae are the ample, modern space particularly at the Wanchai branch, the juicy galmaegi and the free flow steamed egg all at a reasonable price. On the other hand, the quality of the food beyond the barbecue isn’t quite up to standard. I would go back with a group for a casual, fun night, but not when I crave the best Korean food around.
Seorae (Wan Chai) is at 3/F, Capital Building, 181 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Open daily 11:30am-2:30pm (lunch), 6pm-11pm (dinner)
Reservations +852 2392 8699
MTR: Wan Chai
About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for 22 years, 16 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, nine half-marathons, completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker and won the U.S. National Debate Tournament way back in 1991.
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