Within minutes of entering Seoul 116, chances are you’ll spot at least one person sipping on a Soju Capri cocktail. Even from across the dining room, you can’t miss this adult version of the Capri Sun you enjoyed as a child.
The spirit base is soju, Korea’s answer to sake, and it comes in flavor variations ranging from Miss Korea (muddled cucumber, mint and lime) to Rich Lychee (lychee juice, raspberry and blueberry). It’s served in a clear plastic pouch with a straw à la Capri Sun, and in each one — here’s the part you can’t miss — is an LED “ice cube” glowing in a vivid neon hue.
They’re surprisingly tasty, and they’re fun to drink. They’re also a clear signal that Seoul 116 is not your typical Korean restaurant.
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The menu is designed for small plate sharing, for one thing, and contemporary riffs on Korean cuisine — many of them as eye-catching as those Soju Capris — outnumber traditional dishes by a wide margin. Some are so inventive as to be barely recognizable as the dish that inspired them.
That doesn’t mean that they aren’t thoroughly enjoyable in their own right. Seoul 116’s rendition of a shrimp pancake is a freewheeling deconstruction of the classic Korean dish of that name, serving up tempura-battered jumbo shrimp and green onion atop a couple of miniature versions of the savory pancake. Fried purple potato threads, bright rings of pickled jalapeño, and a small dish of soy vinaigrette complete the colorful presentation.
An Asian-accented beef tartare is another fetching dish, featuring ruby ribbons of lean beef glistening in a glaze of soy and sesame, and garnished with a raw quail egg in its shell. It tastes as good as it looks, the beef surprisingly tender given the coarseness of the grind.
Bulgogi sliders, loaded with juicy tatters of soy-marinated rib-eye, are another carnivore’s delight. At the other end of the flora-to-fauna spectrum, but just as satisfying in its own way, is truffle corn cheese, a gooey vegetarian medley served hot with homemade potato chips for dipping.
Fire chicken ’n’ cheese goes all in on the East-West fusion concept with gochujang-marinated chicken, rice cakes and mozzarella baked in a cast iron skillet. The menu warns you that it’s “extremely spicy,” but according to our server, the heat level has been toned down of late. If that “extremely” has your mouth watering, tell your server when you’re ordering to crank up the Scovilles.
Dumpling soup, a soul-satisfying bone broth chockablock with pork dumplings, rice cakes and unctuous chunks of chashu pork belly should also hit the spot on a chilly night. Devotees of traditional Korean cuisine will recognize the soup as a refreshing but respectful update of mandu-guk.
They will also appreciate Seoul 116’s true-to-form rendition of bibimbap. Initially presented in a cast iron skillet, the culinary kaleidoscope of soy-marinated rib-eye, kimchi, shiitakes, scallions, bean sprouts and a fried egg now comes in the customary hot stone bowl. The change is a small one but a wise one, making it easier to toss the toppings and rice together without spilling over the sides. The stone bowl is even better than cast iron at keeping the food hot, too, and as a bonus you get more of those prized bits of crispy rice.
Korean fried chicken wings are not twice-fried (a practice that usually defines the dish), but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Crunchy-crusted in a spicy-sweet glaze, they’re served with their customary companion of pickled daikon and — the only notable creative flourish — a savory scattering of black sesame crumble across the top.
For dessert, skip the unremarkable “tempura” vanilla ice cream. Instead, bring your meal to a satisfying — and shareable — conclusion with a dish that keeps with Seoul 116’s style: green tea ice cream with churros.
The level of execution in the kitchen is high, and miscues are generally minor — inconsistent presentations of the shrimp pancake from one visit to the next, say, or slightly overcooked panko-crusted oysters (and I could do without the sweet wasabi whipped cream that accompanies them, but that’s a matter of taste). The only outright disappointment I have yet to encounter is a surprisingly lackluster presentation of “spicy” tuna tart.
Open since May in Powerhouse Square, Seoul 116’s dining room is a narrow space sandwiched between a long bar (with an especially good selection of soju and sake) and glass doors opening onto a patio. Brick walls, exposed ductwork, utilitarian wood and metal furniture, and glazed concrete floors set an urban contemporary tone that’s well-matched to the menu.
It’s no accident that Japanese threads are woven throughout the Korean food and drink offering. Brothers Shin Chang and Jin Chang, who own the restaurant with business partner/caterer Don Yoo, are originally from Korea. (Shin is the chef, and Jin runs the front of the house.)
But their culinary careers have been in Japanese restaurants, from Los Angeles more than two decades ago to City Market Sushi, which they currently own.
With the opening of Seoul 116, the Chang brothers are getting back to their roots. They’re clearly having fun with it, and as anyone who has eaten there can tell you, the feeling is contagious.
116 N. West St., Suite 100, Raleigh
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: urban contemporary
Noise level: moderate
Service: welcoming and attentive
Recommended: beef tartare, wings, bulgogi sliders, dumpling soup, shrimp pancake, bibimbap
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking in small lot next to the restaurant, and in the deck across the street.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.