Bulgarian Food in Seoul – The Sweet Meats of Zelen

When I first arrived in Seoul, the last place I thought that was going to be one of my favorite eateries was a Bulgarian restaurant. But life has ways of throwing you little surprises. Needless to say, I’m happy I stumbled upon the Lonely Planet review when I first arrived to the ROK because without it I doubt I would have ever found this place. Although I’ve been to Zelen at least a half a dozen times, I’ve always tried something new because their menu is ever-changing and is fairly extensive. So, Saturday night, the wife and I decided to get in what will be the last few remaining childless Saturday nights left and headed to one of our favorites.

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How to get there: The easiest way to get to Zelen is by taking the subway to Itaewon station (Line 6) and depart from Exit 1. From there walk straight until you pass the KFC and make a right. You will go down the alley. You want to head behind the Hamilton Hotel. Behind the alley, make a left and walk for about 2 -3 minutes. You will pass Sam Ryans and Baby Guinness. It’s the next right. Head up the stairs and it’s on the right.

LP’s Description: The guidebook describes Zelen as a warm and welcoming restaurant with plenty of meat and wine options. It recommends the kiufe, which are meatballs on a knife, or giuvedje stew which is packed with meat.

Although this is not LP’s advice, I would recommend that you make a reservation, especially if you are dining on the weekend. I would also suggest that you should try to get the tables near the window for some excellent Itaewon people watching.

Atmosphere: Walking into Zelen is like walking into your grandmother’s house if she lived in the Bulgarian countryside. Leaves and holly decorate the walls and the ceiling, and the unique green interior give Zelen a casual, retro feel. LP’s description is spot on. Zelen has a very relaxing and comfortable atmosphere. The music is light, mostly classical or light jazz. The conversations should be easy going, minutes ticking away as you share wine and old stories. Finally, the large breasted stone statue in the middle of the dining room is unmissable. Strangely, it adds to the charm of Zelen and gives it character as well.

Service: Service has always been great at Zelen and our visit was no exception. English is spoken by all staff, and they help explain the menu if you are unsure. That night, we were a little confused about our appetizer. There was some confusion over the menu description and what came to the table. However, the server came back to our table and explained it thoroughly. The servers always have a smile, and are engaging. They keep your glass filled with water and respond when needed. Even when I’ve been to Zelen with a large party, the staff is always prepared and attentive.

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Food and Drink: Since we can’t drink alcohol, we decided to order extra food! Gluttony, you will be the death of me. On this visit we ordered the Cheese Eggplant, Kiopolu, Spinach Chicken, Agneshko po Gergiovski (aka leg of lamb) and finally Chocolate Fondant for dessert.

Kiopolu: It was strange that this dish was classified as a salad. There are no greens, but instead it is chopped aubergines blended with garlic, peppers and tomatoes to create a paste. With this paste, you spread it on some toast lightly seasoned with parsley that you receive with the dish. This was the dish we were originally confused on and sent back. However, the server did an excellent job of explaining the dish, by explaining not all salads are green. Live and learn. The Kiopolu is cool and refreshing. This would make a really nice summer appetizer if you are looking to serve something more culturally diverse. My wife really enjoyed the flavors of the garlic and peppers together. I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes, but I still indulged in a sample. The pepper was flavorful, without being overwhelming. The amount of garlic was perfect. You could taste the garlic, without being consumed by it. I found that all the flavors balanced out each other nicely.

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Cheese Eggplant: The Cheese Eggplant is my preferred appetizer at Zelen. Eggplant was never really a favorite of mine growing up, but when you add cheese to it and bake it, well good things happen. The eggplant is cut into three and sprinkled with mozzarella cheese. There is also hints of onions, garlic, tomatoes and the dish is garnished with a variety of herbs. The cheese and the eggplant are delicious, and the garlic and herbs work together nicely. This isn’t a heavy dish, and in my opinion is a perfect appetizer because it doesn’t fill you up before the big show, and yet provides excellent flavor and texture.

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Spinach Chicken: The main courses arrived shortly after the appetizers. Jill ordered the spinach chicken. The spinach chicken is chicken stuffed with fresh green spinach and covered in cream sauce. It comes with vegetables on the side. The chicken was cooked to perfection, not a burn anywhere and the spinach was packed tightly. The sauce was gently seasoned with rosemary, a nice complimentary herb for the grilled chicken. The vegetables were great, however the carrot was undercooked and hard. A minor infraction, nothing to worry about. Overall, a very satisfying dish.

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Agneshko po Gergiovski (Leg of Lamb): A quick Google translate has informed me that Agneshko po Gergiovski means Lamb of St.George. Well, okay then. Who am I to question Google? Regardless the dish is a meat lovers dream. The lamb itself is tender and is covered in the juices of the lamb.The love the feeling of cutting into meat with the side of my fork, it shows that the lamb has cooked slowly over a period of time and has all of its flavors anxiously waiting to burst out.  The portion is huge. For the price of the meal, it is worth every WON in quantity alone. The lamb comes with a cup of wild mushroom rice, which includes small cubes of beer mixed in with the rice. Finally, there is a salad to give your heart a little relief. Now, the salad is basically lettuce drizzled in oil and vinegar. This was my only complaint about the meal. In my opinion, it doesn’t take much effort to toss in a cucumber, some onions and a tomato to create a small side salad. It gives the meal a little more color and flavor. However, that said, this dish is hearty and juicy. The carnivore in your family will not be disappointed.

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Chocolate Fondant: Some restaurants call it “Chocolate Lava Cake”. I hate that name. It sounds like something a five-year-old made up. I’m not a culinary snob, but it’s like calling the leg of lamb “Meat Mountain with a Hillside of Rice”. Anyway, enough of that. Since we are not drinking (together..hehe) we decided to save a little room for the chocolate fondant. It turned out to be an excellent decision. First, the presentation of the fondant is dessert for the eyes. The chocolate fondant in the middle, drizzled with caramel gives the dish a playful look. It’s a nostalgic feeling, as though I’m a young boy seeing my birthday cake for the first time. The sweetness of the cake touches your tastebuds even before the first bite. The ice cream is strong, but not made of stone. The fork gracefully slices through the ice cream, down through the soft cake and the flow of chocolate slowly flows out spreading around the cake like moat around a castle. The combination of all the flavors is a delightful treat, perfect for the end of a great meal. I wish it wasn’t socially unacceptable to lick a plate like a dog in public.

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Value: Tally up the damage and Zelen can put a dent in your wallet. However, the old argument of quality versus quantity is applicable here. The bill came to approximately 80,000WON. The Agneshko po Gergiovski was 26,000KRW, the Spinach Chicken was 18,500KRW, the Cheese Eggplant was 10,000WON, the Kiopolu was 10,000WON, and the chocolate fondant was 6000KRW. Great food in a comfortable environment is what makes Zelen one of the most popular restaurants in Itaewon. It is always a place I feel confident recommending to visitors, especially if you need a break from the Korean food.

Who should visit Zelen: Zelen is a great place for going out on a nice quiet date. The setting is relaxing and romantic. My wife and I always enjoy having date nights here. Also, if you are having a large party, you can order party sized swords of meat. The table next to us had one, and it looked great!

Who should avoid Zelen: Not exactly a place I would go to if you are on a budget. Also, I don’t know if I would feel comfortable bringing a small child here, there really isn’t anything on the menu that is kid friendly. Finally, if you are a vegetarian, your options are fairly limited.

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