This weekend the boy and I decided to ditch Daegu in favor of something a little more distant. Well, that’s not the whole truth. We’d actually planned to visit a Cherry Blossom Festival last weekend in Jinhae, but mother nature had something else in store for us. Alas, we’ve learned a lot this year about making the best of less-than-awesome situations, so we chalked it up as another “character-building” experience, and went on our way. After a series of less-than fortunate events (including the bus driver blasting away from our stop before I had a chance to get off, Luke spilling scalding-hot coffee all over his favorite pants—he didn’t rip them until later on in the evening), we rode off on our clown bikes to explore the ancient city (oh, to be six-foot-tall in Korea..). Only a little historical exploring ended up taking place—I guess you could say we got Korea’d again—but I don’t want to gripe further, so without further ado:
I’d seen some positive reviews on TripAdvisor for a vegan restaurant called Baru in of Gyeongju, and I’d been wanting to try out some of South Korea’s temple food for some time, so we hopped a cab from the bus station to grab dinner. After leaving our shoes at the entrance, we were seated on the floor in a private room next to a man in temple garb and a woman in plainclothes—about half of the patrons that I noticed in the restaurant had shaved heads and donned the typical grey-ish, loose-fitting wardrobe often seen in these parts of the world. And it makes sense—for the two hours it took to be served our entire meal (after a four-hour bike ride), one undoubtedly requires the patience of a monk!
We ordered the Baru special set menu for 18,000 won, thinking that’d be the price for the table— it’s actually 18,000 won a person, surprisingly steep for Korea—but veg-based restaurants here are pretty limited so you’ve gotta take what you can get. The wild vegetable bibimbap and potato pancakes looked promising at a lesser price, but we wanted the whole experience—all eight courses, as explained in passable English by our sweet server.
In Korea you become quite accustomed to incredibly fast, efficient restaurant service—usually water is already on the table, banchan (side dishes) are served immediately after placing an order, and meals come within five minutes, if not sooner.
Contrarily, I’d advise having a snack before Baru. We had some nice hot tea within five minutes, but our first sharing plate didn’t come for fifteen—this slow serving style became the trend through the evening as our meal stretched on and our sight-seeing plans floated far, far away. While the small plate of mixed, fresh field greens with strawberries and a balsamic-type dressing were zingy and refreshing, boyfriend and I were starting to get hangry….
The next course was two types of bindaettok (traditional Korean pancake usually made with mung beans), one savoury with potato and leeks, and the other sweet and filled with red bean paste. Can’t go wrong with pancakes, as these proved.
Next, mini veggie crepes. This reminded me of Shabu Shabu (Japanese hotpot)—what with the fresh, colorful veggies, tasty sauce, and roll-your-own aesthetic—though this wrapping paper was freshly-made, with a slight yellow color. I actually don’t know what they’re made of (any ideas?), but these were tasty.
I was quite surprised to see tempura-battered veggies (sweet potato and what seemed a leafy green?) served at a temple food restaurant.
Leaf-wrapped steamed sticky rice and eggplant “sandwiches” with paste in the middle. I can’t recall what was inside of them but they were tasty!
Cabbage and lotus-root salad with a sweet-sour dressing.
This next dish was our favorite: kind of a Chinese-inspire sweet-and-sour veggie plate served atop some tempura-fried veggies and puffed rice. Sweet, sour, crunchy. Yum!
Kabocha squash, broccoli, and imitation meatballs (my best guess is they were made from TVP), with that goshdarn ubiquitous Korean mustard sauce.
Wild veggie bibimbap, served with Jeonju-style rice (purple!). Unfortunately the rice (unpictured) didn’t come until five minutes after the veggies and banchan had been served, at which point we’d already eaten the veggies meant to be mixed into the rice… I guess we can blame the language barrier for that one.
Banchan: Marinated sesame leaf, tofu, peppers, ice seaweed soup, and of course… kimchi.
All in all Baru was a nice meal, and a welcome respite for veg eaters—the food was clearly fresh, in general the meal was healthy, and while the flavors were quite muted (from what I’ve read temple food is generally considered quite bland to the common man, they don’t like to salt or spice the dishes heavily as to preserve the food’s natural flavours), it was a nice variety of beautifully-coloured foods and a really unique experience to eat all of these traditional foods generally reserved for a special part of the population.
As for the timing and portion sizes: Someone told me once that Buddhists rate hunger on a scale of one to ten–ten being full and one starved—and you’re supposed to eat when you’re at maybe at a 3 and continue to eat only until you reach a 6 or so. That ideal, and the general emphasis on mindfulness in Buddhism, would serve well to explain the small portions and time in between services. I’ll admit we felt a tad bit cheated as famished day-trippers who wanted to pack as much sight-seeing into the day as possible, but in hindsight it was a pretty neat thing to experience, and maybe a lesson in moving slow—and for that I’m grateful.
Baru is located at: 874-3 Seoak-dong, Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do, South Korea. It’s about a 35-minute walk from the bus station or just get a taxi to call their number the restaurant at 054-774-5378 for directions. It’s a five-minute, 5,000 won taxi ride from the bus station.
(We did still get to see a few cool things in Gyeongju–how beautiful is Anapji Pond at night?)