SEOUL — I arrived too early. Terrified of being late, I had given myself more time on top of the extra time I usually allow and had arrived at the restaurant 20 minutes before my 7:30 p.m. reservation.
Standing outside, I practiced my line: “I’m Jiyeon Lee for the 7:30 reservation,” while incessantly checking the time on my phone to make sure I hadn’t missed the five-minute window during which I was allowed to arrive.
It had to be done just that way. Customers are to enter five minutes — and only five minutes — prior to their reservation time and they are to introduce themselves as soon as they step foot in the door. There were a lot of rules, and the owner, Shin Dong-il, was serious about them. I had no intention of losing my reservation, so I went along.
I opened the restaurant door at 7:25, announced myself and sat down at one of the three tables after being greeted by the owner, who was the only other person present. He was dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt. The interior of the restaurant, like its exterior, lacked adornment save for a large, faded poster of Shin Dong-il. I took it as a sign of the owner’s absolute confidence in the food being served.
My rather nerve-wracking dining experience was inspired by a friend who told me about this famous donkatsu restaurant with an intricate reservation system. Donkatsu, or Japanese-style deep-fried pork cutlet, has become one of the most common and popular dishes in South Korea, known for being relatively cheap yet filling. This particular restaurant, however, boasted a slightly different take on the conventional dish.
Shindongod, short for Shin Dong-il’s donkatsu, quickly drew crowds following its 1999 opening, thanks to its one-of-a-kind dongod menu. Dongod, simply put, is donkatsu minus the heavy sauce with which it is usually served.
The restaurant, located in a busy shopping district in Seoul, wasn’t particularly accessible in the beginning, though, thanks to endless lines that seemed ever-present. But Shindongod was forced to relocate due to redevelopment about five years ago, and that’s when Shin decided to take matters into his own hands. The clearly high standards Shin has set for his food are matched only by what he expects from those who visit him at his new location, which is in a hidden alleyway adjacent to a bustling college neighborhood.
“Do you know why I agreed to the interview?” Shin asked from under the brim of his black cap, after serving the beer I had ordered in advance. “It’s because you followed the rules. You went through all the proper steps to make a reservation.” I had heard about other reporters being kicked out, or being ordered to clean the premises as retribution for a surprise visit.
The rules go as follows: 1) go to the Shindongod website, 2) become a member by paying a nearly $20-fee that is later deducted from your bill, 3) log on and write a note to Shin that must begin with “Hello Mr. Shindongod …” after which you indicate how many people are in your party and, finally, 4) you must explain why you want to visit the restaurant.
All food must be ordered in advance and all payments made prior to arrival. I ordered a beer, a dish called “White Cloud Shindongod” and fried ice cream-balls for dessert. Customers are not to make phone calls, write emails or ask questions about information already available on the website.
Shin is well aware that the complexity of the system may deter some would-be customers. “To run a business strictly based on reservations basically means the owner isn’t interested in making money,” he said. “I only take the customers that I want.”
Shin sees himself as an artist who is constantly out to prove himself, and he wants his customers as serious as he is about his food. His internet-only reservation system is meant to test the committment of his would-be customers. In turn, having fewer customers would put the pressure on Shin to make sure each dish was the best it could be.
“It was going to be the opportunity to see if I’m really a good chef,” he said, admitting to having been terrified the night before he made the transition. The dimly-lit restaurant, punctuated with the occasional plastic flower atop a table, is only open for a handful of hours each day, and Shin is clearly not making the money he used to. But neither is he interested in doing so.
“I’ve done that before,” he said. “There were days in the past when I would be on television in the morning and again at lunch time.” The walls of the restaurant are covered with clips of Shin in the media from his early years of fame.
Shin declined to disclose his age saying he wanted to only be known for his food and nothing else. He put on his glasses after a brief chat and disappeared into the kitchen to soon emerge once again with a dish of grilled vegetables I hadn’t ordered.
Shin’s dishes are nowhere close to cheap. They range from roughly $15 for a single dish to more than $320 for a full course, which Shin puts together at his own discretion — while the typical donkatsu sells for, at most, $10 elsewhere in the country. But the distinctive taste and time spent on each dish justify Shin’s price tag.
The dish, called “Very Frightening Grilled Vegetables,” is said to trigger adrenaline which “accelerates the heart beat and plays a significant role in getting people to reach the highest peak of physical and mental pleasure,” according to Shin’s website. The grilled vegetables came with a special sauce that Shin said took him three excruciatingly painful years to develop.
Following the vegetables was the main dish of dongod, which felt as if the pieces had been fried in water, not oil — that’s the best way I can explain its clean, pleasant taste. The unknown substance, which Shin referred to only as “vegetables," placed inside the fried dongod brought out a richness that more than made up for the absence of a sauce.
“Don’t mix the dressing with the vegetable, just eat from the top,” he cautioned me as I reached for the side salad with “white cloud” dressing – a sweet, fruity and slightly sour substance — that had come with the dongod.
Like most artists, Shin said he draws inspiration from his surroundings, and often enjoys looking at women’s clothes for color and aesthetics. He is aware that many people find him unusual, but said he thinks he was born ahead of his time and in the wrong country, where people lack appreciation for craftsmanship.
“I want to be able to create a masterpiece some day. A work of art that will fill up reservations all year around,” he said.