Seoul’s sweet tooth has evolved over the years. In the past, dessert was not considered a quintessential part of the Korean culinary scene, but as the time marches on, and the Western cultures continues to pick away at the iceberg of xenophobia, so that the “hermit kingdom” is slowly coming out of its shell.
Talking to ex-pates who’ve lived in Seoul for over a decade, most have told me that you would be lucky to find a dessert place that sells authentic goodies from back home. Often, they would receive care packages from their relatives back home with cookies and other baked goods that would survive the transpacific flight. Now, however, things have changed, and Seoulites are embracing the dessert revolution like never before.
Tartine is an Itaewon staple. It was the first dessert I ate here in Korea five years ago, and I’ve been back countless times. Now that they have opened a place for brunch, my visits have become more frequent. Tartine is like the steady girlfriend, the one you can bring home to mom, and I truly felt guilty when about a year ago, Ben’s Cookies opened up on the main strip across from Jay’s Hair. I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a cookie guy. I’m really not much of a dessert guy period, but there are moments when I need the sweetness of some chocolate or blueberry pie guts to satisfy my gluttonous lust. However, Ben’s Cookies, that dirty girl down the street lured me in, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Let’s break down these two Itaewon dessert juggernauts.
Lonely Planet’s Description: Looking for dessert? You won’t go wrong with the scrumptious fruit pies and other confections at this charming bakery-cafe run by an American baker. So successful has this place been it’s expanded its operation across the alley to a bustling brunch cafe with plenty of menu options (3785 3400; http://www.tartine.co.kr; mains 9000-38000WON, 10am – 10pm, Line 6 to Itaewon, Exit 1)
How to get there: Lonely Planet’s description is pretty good, however you do need to make one small adjustment when you’re leaving the exit. Tartine is not on the main strip, so you have to walk until you pass the KFC and then make a right. It’s about halfway up the hill; the brunch restaurant will be on your left and the bakery will be on your right. Listen for pies screaming out at you to eat them.
Atmosphere: I’ve been to both the bakery and the brunch locations, so I’ll give you a brief rundown. The bakery is a lot more relaxed; think springtime in Paris, watching Europeans bustle about during their day, while you slowly sip away at cafe expresso. On the other hand, the brunch location is a little more lively, with louder chatter and more energy. It depends what mood you’re in. If you want to have a deep, intimate conversation, I would head over to the bakery, but if you want to people watch and feel the energy of the city, the brunch location is the place to go.
Food: Remember those pies that were drawn in storybooks when you were growing up? Those pictures of pies that would cool on the windowsill, bulging out of the pan, perfectly brown crusts, so tempting you wanted to lick your television screen or book? Tartine pies are those pies. They literally scream out as you walk by the display window, the colors are a collage of culinary delights, spinning in your head like a pinwheel of flavor. The first time you cut into a Tartine pie, your instantly transported out of the ROK and back to your grandma’s house. The pies are immaculately baked and the flavors will surely satisfy any sweet tooth. I don’t know if I’ve found a better place for pies, and with that said, the little cookie shop down the street beckons me.
Value: Sigh. I love you Tartine. I really do. I want to buy one of your big pies, but I just can’t take out a second mortgage right now. The old saying, you get what you pay for holds true in this regard. A large pie can run you anywhere from 30 – 42k WON! Now that said, on a wedding day, the birth of a child, this could be a pretty good option. But I’m talking about a nice night home, with friends after dinner, 42K for a pecan pie is a lot of scratch. However, you can purchase small pies for about 8000WON, and that’s what we did. We picked up the some fresh pies and brought them home. In total, it cost us 24000 WON , but since I’m a whore to desserts, I gladly paid without even a second’s hesitation.
Who Should go to Tartine: Like sweets? Miss the pastries from back home? Just get paid from work and/or are independently wealthy? Hit this place up.
Who Should avoid Tartine: People on a budget or diabetics.
Ben’s Cookies have been popping up all around Seoul for the last year. I saw a branch down in Gangnam when my wife and I were looking for grill5taco, and last night we saw another Ben’s Cookies in Hongdae. For good reason this place is expanding. Last year, it seems as though Ben’s Cookies was just going to be a takeout shop, which in Itaewon it still is. However, we noticed that in Gangnam, it has a small cafe instead to sit and indulge. During the day, it’s not uncommon to see a lineup out the door.
How to get there: It is pretty easy to find since it’s on the main strip. Head out exit 2 from Itaewon station (Line 6). You will go up the hill. If you are going down the hill, you are going the wrong way. TURN AROUND! It’s about a five minute walk. It’s just a really small place, which will be located on your left-hand side. You will probably see a lineup if you visit during a weekend afternoon.
Food: I know I might have come on a little too strong about Tartine’s prices, since Ben’s Cookies are a little pricy. However, you can simply get one or two cookies, and it’s going to cost you about 5000 won. There are a variety of flavors, and they seem to change on a frequent basis. My personal favorites are the double chocolate cookie, the orange chocolate cookie, the peanut butter, the milk chocolate chunk and the milk chocolate praline. Moist and chewy, they melt into your mouth and the flavors run down your gullet, and for a moment, the noisy, the screaming and honking of the horns in this cacophonous city seem absorb into this cookie, and all that remains is silence.
Value: Addicts like me don’t fuck around. We get the 15 pack which will run you about 35000 Won. However, like I once was, started as a casual user and would only get two or three. You can get three for about 10000 WON. What I prefer about Ben’s is that there is value there that can be had. Although, I love Tartine, I don’t always want to drop 10000 Won for a pie that can fit into the palm of my hand. Ben’s allows me to fuel my addiction on the go, and by the cookie. So, for value, I have to go with Ben’s Cookies. But I still love you Tartine.
Who should go to Ben’s Cookies: People who want a quick bite to satisfy their sweet tooth while on the go. Want to impress your significant other with your culinary skills? Here’s a tip: Go to Ben’s and buy a cookie, then hit up the GS25 on the same street and buy a little carton of ice cream. Bring those bad boys home. Get out a bowl, put a scoop of ice cream at the bottom of the bowl and then break chunks of the cookie and place it on top. Put that guy in the microwave for about 15 seconds. You are a now a culinary genius.
Who should avoid Ben’s Cookies: This isn’t a place you can go, sit down and have endless conversations about the meaning of life (at least in the Itaewon location). Also, diabetics should avoid this place and people with gluten allergies. I didn’t see any non-gluten options.