Last week, I received a message from a woman named Megan I'd met once five years ago through a mutual friend. We'd barely talked at the time, but we were Facebook friends and she had noticed we were both in Seoul. One of the fun things about living so far from home is that even the most fleeting connection with someone from your past is reason enough to forge a deeper one--"We met once a long time ago and we have a mutual friend; wanna meet for Russian food?" And so it was decided. I invited along my friend Shira (and Dan, of course), Megan invited a friend too, and a few days later we were sitting under the glimmering chandeliers of Gostiny Dvor making awkward "getting to know you" conversation. Well, almost all of us; Megan's friend was running a bit late.
I found Gostiny Dvor while scouting Uzbeki restaurants in the neighborhood near Dongdaemun, which is within walking distance of my workplace. We went to the first of them a couple of weeks ago and after a lamb and rice feast that cost $10, I decided I wanted to try every Uzbeki establishment in the neighborhood I could find. Dan was happy to oblige. I wasn't always sure whether the restaurants we were going to were Uzbeki or Russian, and some of them seemed to be a mixture of both. However, when we walked inside Gostiny Dvor, it was almost immediately apparent that it was thoroughly Russian--from the red nesting dolls on display above the kitchen to the menu filled with items featuring smoked fish, mayonnaise and beets.
We all immediately liked the look and feel of the place, which had an aesthetic that Shira aptly describe as "a Chekhov play from 1904." We were delighted by the decor and baffled by the menu in equal proportions. So many options! And so many of them featuring beets! As we all scratched our heads and shared the unusual stories of how each of us had ended up in Korea, Megan's friend arrived and...the rest of us knew her! Shira's only been here a month, Dan's been visiting me (and not meeting anyone) for two, and I've led a pretty reclusive existence since arriving here in February, so we couldn't have been more surprised or amused to see Ryan, who we had briefly met at a Mexikorean dinner party that the folks at O'ngo had thrown a week prior. After the party, Shira, Dan, and I talked sheepishly about how we hadn't tried to make friends while we were there, laughing together and snorting down the delicious pulled pork tacos at our own table. Now we had a chance to make amends for our anti-social ways and get to know Ryan better.
Still at a loss as to the menu, we decided to order items described as "the oldest Russian soup" and "the most popular Russian salad." Considering our ignorance of Russian food, we figured ordering superlatives was a sound strategy. We also requested the Baltika #6 beer but were served #7, which turned out to be a happy mistake, judging by the contented sighs of the beer connoisseurs among us. Normally a wine drinker myself, I only recognize three kinds of beer: light, dark, and wheaty. This was light and may as well have been Hite as far as I was concerned, but I'll trust my more discerning friends, who told me it was much more flavorful. By this point, we were getting past the awkwardness and energetically trading stories and laughing.
Both the salad and soup were wonderful and surprising. The salad was so simple--a mayonnaise-laden version of the potato salad you'd get at a picnic back home, except there were chicken and peas rather than potatoes. However, something about it tasted more delicious and complex than an average potato salad; I wish I knew what. The soup was also very simple, and I was surprised to find that lime and dill complement each other so well since I'm so accustomed to eating lime with cilantro. I also hadn't realized that they were Russian flavors. I was so excited about this soup that I decided to look it up at work the next day, whereupon I discovered that Ivan the Terrible and I have at least one thing in common.
At this point, the dishes were coming fast and furious: potato dumplings (bites topped with sour cream were great, bites where I didn't get any were a little plain), baked salmon smothered in cheese, pepper stuffed with lamb and also topped with cheese, and a piece of sweet, creamy cake known as Medovic. For me, the highlights were the soup and the baked salmon, but everything exceeded my expectations. Dishes that had sounded and looked potentially stodgy or flavorless were instead delicate or creamy and punctuated by a bit of sourness. Gostiny Dvor has turned me into a Russian food enthusiast, and its pleasant atmosphere is ideal for meeting up with old friends or making new ones.