At Gaja Korean Kitchen, There’s Definitely More To Korean Food Than All-You-Can-Eat Samgyeopsal
Korean culture dominates the Philippines from fashion and music, to entertainment and food. And the country has become a real haven for Korean cuisine, with old-time favorites like Kaya and Korea Garden, and the now established Koreatown in Makati. Filipinos have become real connoisseurs of Korean food, fueling the explosion of samgyeopsal joints that elicit long lines for their grilled meat goodness and all-you-can-eat affordability.
Photo courtesy of Gaja Korean Kitchen’s Facebook
For those who love samgyeopsal but would like to go beyond traditional Korean barbecue, and if waiting in long lines isn’t really your thing, then a visit to Gaja Korean Kitchen in Poblacion, Makati may be in order. With the Korean word “gaja” meaning “let’s go,” Gaja Korean Kitchen hopes to show its customers the beauty and intricacy of Korean food but mixed with a modern twist.
After spending many years in South Korea, resident chef Marc Justin Tee wants Filipinos to know that there’s more to Korean food than samgyeopsal. At Gaja, he showcases a different side to Korean cuisine which he believes is a perfect match to the Filipino palate.
Chef Marc invited us on a Korean gastronomical journey with an array of dishes that celebrates his own creative take on traditional Korean flavors. He started off the meal with classic Sundubu-jjigae or soft tofu soup, made with freshly curdled, soft and creamy tofu that melts in your mouth, mixed crunchy vegetables, and seafood. He then made us try Kimbap or seaweed and rice roll with different fillings: Samgyeopsal Kimbap that gives you that Korean barbecue feel in just one bite; Kimbap Aburi made with kimchi fried rice and bulgogi, topped with house-made cheese sauce; and crunchy fried Spicy Salmon and Tuna Kimbap.
The crowd favorite was Chef Marc’s take on Galbi-jjim or braised beef rib stew, made using English-cut Kitayama Wagyu short ribs from Bukidnon, cooked sous-vide for 48 hours until the beef falls off the bone. The short ribs are pan-seared, then served with a carrot and potato purée, reminiscent of Filipino caldereta.
Chef Marc calls his colorful upgrade of the classic rice dish bibimbap, Ribimbap, since it uses juicy USDA rib-eye. He adds fresh mushrooms, and vibrant vegetables like zucchini, red bell peppers, bean sprouts, carrots, and mushrooms, topped over hot white rice and served with sweet and creamy homemade gochujang butter and egg, creating a healthy, well balanced dish. While Chef Marc is a fan of traditional bibimbap with gochujang or red chili paste, he feels that the sauce tends to overpower the whole dish. Instead, he wants diners to taste every component: sweetness from the bell peppers, crunch from the French beans and zucchini, creaminess from the gochujang butter, and the pungent flavor of the mushrooms.
Another one of Chef Marc’s creative Korean dishes is his unique K-Tacos using soft house-made tortillas that he flavors with kimchi juice or brine. The tortillas are topped with pulled pork shoulder braised in Korean spices, then topped with pickled radish, more kimchi, microgreens for some crunch, and garlic cream sauce.
The Osam—Chef Marc’s take on this popular surf-and-turf dish—is definitely awesome in flavor. Whole squid is stuffed with stir-fried rice, and paired with pork belly, crispy crackling, and spicy Korean sauce. The pork is first slow-braised, pressed overnight to achieve its shape, then broiled to make it crispy on the outside, giving a whole lot of texture in every bite.
The Korean Chili Lava Cake may seem like an ordinary dessert to some, but one bite makes your taste buds go wild with its contrasting textures and flavors: decadent chocolate cake, smooth and velvety warm chocolate oozing out, cold vanilla ice cream, and chili flakes for a hint of heat.
Korean Chili Lava Cake
If you’re looking for a spot to drink away from the hustle and bustle of Poblacion, Gaja has its own speakeasy bar inside the restaurant. You can enjoy your favorite cocktails and alcoholic drinks in relaxed surroundings. Make sure to try the bar’s Korean-inspired concoctions like the sweet and creamy lassi-like drink combination of Yakult and soju, a Korean distilled rice liquor.
With affordable dishes and a playful, modern menu, Gaja offers a fuss-free dining experience minus the long lines and the barbecue after-party smell, that celebrates Korea’s multi-faceted cuisine.
Gaja Korean Kitchen, 8445 Kalayaan Avenue, Poblacion, Makati City, (0906) 493-0799, IG gajaph
Photos courtesy of Marie Francia and Monique Suzara