Moranbong, granted two stars in the Michelin guide in 2012, was the first Korean restaurant in the world to be given two stars. It opened in 2009, its head chef being Mr Minoru Komukai. It specialises in yakiniku (grilled meat) a style of food popularized by Korean chefs in Japan. There is an associated food wholesale company and a cooking school, and the head chef himself graduated from this school. The owner of the restaurant, Jun Pyeong Yeo, has been a leading influence in raising the profile of Korean food in Japan. The cooking style at Moranbong is a mix of Korean palace cusine with Korean local dishes.
Tucked away in a basement on a busy shopping street in Shibuya, Moranborg seats just twenty people, including three private rooms, one of which we were escorted to. The room was plainly decorated, with a black wooden table, wood floor and an area at one end of the room with a grill, which would come into play later. There was a wine list, with wines such as the lovely Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2007 at ¥12,500 for a wine that retails at ¥7,000, Hugel Riesling 2004 at ¥9,000 for a wine you can find in the shops for around ¥2,400 and the excellent Opus One 2004 at ¥67,000 for a wine that will set you back ¥25,000 to buy in a shop, so markup levels were tolerable if erratic.
The meal began with pumpkin soup porridge seasoned with a little salt (though I think more salt would have helped, as the result was a little bland). This came with kim chee (pickles, the Korean national dish) pieces in syrup, known as water kimchi. This was pleasant if unexciting (perhaps 13/20). Next was a braised scallop, served with a little omelette of carrot, shiitake mushroom and spinach, and a little salad. The omelette was nice and the salad was good (around 13/20), but the scallop was not trimmed, had no inherent sweetness and was badly overcooked (10/20 for the scallop). On the side a beautiful lacquer presentation box was brought to the table, inside which were thin rice pancakes with sauces and a selection of vegetables to put in the pancakes: carrot, mushroom, red pepper, cucumber, green beans, onion, egg and also cooked minced beef. The pancakes were very pleasant, garnished with mustard to your taste (13/20).
Roast flounder was served cold with a spicy coriander (chojang) sauce, the fish nicely cooked and the sauce working well with the fish (15/20). Crab, shrimp and pine nut sauce was another cold dish, interleaved with carrot and cucumber, and this was also pleasant (14/20). Next was king crab served raw in its shell, coated with a spicy sauce. There are some things that are better cooked than raw in my opinion, and crab is one of them. In fact we asked if they could cook one crab for comparison, and it came back later as a lovely dish (15/20 for the cooked version).
At this stage the chef appeared and set up the grill at one end of the room. On this he cooked beef and salmon. We were given leaves in which to wrap the grilled morsels, along with soy sauce, a spicy pickle and lemon sauce, as well as Chinese cabbage kimchi. The meat cuts used were tongue, rib and what I think was sirloin. In addition there was a potato fritter with peppers presented in an iron pan, the fritter being a tad on the soggy side for my liking. The rib in particular was nice, and the salmon was carefully cooked, the combination with the leaves (Asian lettuce and perilla) and pickles making this a fun dish to eat (15/20). At this point we were served rice with a hot spicy soup of salmon and shrimp, concluding the savoury courses for the evening. Dessert was sour fruit punch, a fruit sponge and steamed nutmeg cake, the latter in particular quite enjoyable (13/20).
Service was charming, with limited English spoken but a genuinely warm welcome. The bill came to ¥35,700 with three beers, which works out at £136 per head, which to be honest is an awful lot of money for what was delivered. Of course there was a private room, and the service was lovely, but still. My problem here other that the price was one of expectations, give the two star billing. I have yet to go to Korea, so my Korean food experiences have been mostly in the USA (there are lots of Korean communities there), and certainly the food here compares well with those places I have tried, and was far more elaborate in terms of presentation. But at the end of the day this was mostly some grilled food with pickles, and there is a limit to how much that is worth. If you want good Korean food in smart surroundings with charming service and are not worried about the bill then Morangbong is for you, just don't expect genuine two star Michelin food.