Review: Hanilkwan (한일관) *Michelin Bib Gourmand

If you know someone from Seoul who is of the older generations mention "Hanilkwan" and it's unlikely they won't know of this institution. Its pedigree and excellence was most recently noted in Seoul's inaugural Michelin Guide where it was listed as one of its Bib Gourmand restaurants and was even registered by the city of Seoul as a future heritage site.

This legendary restaurant first opened shop as Hwaseonok, specializing in filling stews like gukbap and chueotang all the way back in 1939, back during the Japanese colonial era. After Korea's liberation in 1945, that's when the restaurant began establishing its famed dishes like its beef bulgogi as it changed its name to Hanilkwan to mean Korea's best restaurant.

After a brief interruption in the 50s due to something called the Korean War, the restaurant relocated to Busan for a brief time before returning to Seoul at the end of the war only to find its former restaurant building in Jongno in its entirety had been wiped off from warfare.

It built itself a new 3 story building on Jongno 1ga's famed pimatgol (such a large building was a rarity at that time) and would find its first wave of success for the next decade or so, opening branches in Myeongdong and elsewhere. At that time, Hanilkwan was the place for important occasions. Seoul's elite, celebrities, politicians could all be found here most likely feasting on their famed yooksoo bulgogi in which thin slices of marinated premium beef would be cooked on the table with a broth.

You have to understand that given this time period, Hanilkwan was well ahead of such premium beef restaurants like Samwon Garden which would mostly open in the late 70s. In essence, for Seoulites at the time premium beef was basically equated with Hanilkwan.

With the mass influx of fast food and franchise restaurants in the 80s, Hanilkwan- having already endured colonial occupation, war, and rebuilding- saw another period of survival as business declined and the restaurant shuttered all its branches except for its main restaurant. Instead of cutting corners, the restaurant stuck to its use of premium ingredients and even allowed employees from its closed branches to continue working even at part time capacities. The 2000's brought further upheaval as the Jongno district's redevelopment plans forced the end of the famed road of pimatgol including Hanilkwan which found its new home in present-day Apgujeong. It has since, regained its footing, opening back up several branches around Seoul as the younger generations are rediscovering the many deserved merits of this historic restaurant.

Its perhaps fitting that Hanilkwan relocated to the posh Apgujeong neighborhood as the building itself, both outside and in, gives off a confident and polished aura.

While bulgogi and beef are probably the best known dishes at Hanilkwan, their menu is also quite extensive and features a range of the best of traditional Seoul cuisine. One of the best ways to sample a variety of fare from here is to opt for their bulgogi lunch set. The set kicks off with a seasonal porridge, salad, various Korean savory pancakes, bulgogi and spicy pollack, and your selection of main including woogeojitang (cabbage stew), yookgaejang, mushroom and wild sesame stew, dwenjang jjigae, goldongban (a premium bibimbap), mandu, and naengmyeon and then capped with a dessert. This lunch set comes out to 29K per person.

Note that the lunch set is only available from 11:30 to 2:30PM everyday and with a minimum order for 2.

If you're wanting to splurge, they also have premium beef sets that are available lunch or dinner. Only condition is that there's a minimum 2 person order. These sets run between 45K to 60K per person.

If you missed the lunch cut off or prefer something a little lighter than the sets, there's an extensive a la carte menu as well. From hearty everyday favorite stews like galbitang (15K) and yukgaejang (12K) to mandu soup made with homemade dumplings (12K), naengmyeon (10K), and their premium bibimbap called goldongban (12K), these dishes reflects an offshoot of the traditional Seoul-based Joseon Dynasty royal and elite class cooking.

If you're with others and ordering a la carte, you can always split some different savory jeons or plate of mandu

...or go big and get their premium hanwoo beef cuts for barbecuing.

In addition to everyday and premium Korean liquor, they also offer a small selection of wine.

Detailing where their primary ingredients comes from.

The menu also briefly introduces its history including pictures.

Hanilkwan's structure houses a couple of floors with its first floor selling their premium banchan in takeout containers. The dining halls are spacious, airy, with high ceilings and table seating.

Our meal kicked off with some nice chilled tea.

Given banchan of kimchi, gently cooked and seasoned mushrooms and peppers, peppers, and an oyster jeotgal. Like their salads and many dishes, the banchan changes a bit as they make use of seasonal ingredients.

Our seasonal porridge and salad was a mung bean porridge along with a simple salad consisting of young cabbage, spring greens, and dongchimi. The salad and dongchimi, reflecting the early spring season at the time.

Nice crunch and a light enough seasoning that it doesn't mask some of the spring herbs and notes.

Accompanying the salad and porridge was some pan fried, seasoned dried pollack as well as an oyster and pomegranate salad. The pollack was well seasoned with spicy, savory, and sweet notes and just chewy enough without overworking your jaws. Winter is traditional oyster season and these babies had been lightly seasoned and pan fried and sitting atop a bed of sprouts, mung bean noodles, and a few pomegranate seeds encircling the dish. Quite an interesting dish and a fun variety in textures.

The savory jeon came next. Still hot from the pan, the two varities included haemulpajeon (green onion and seafood) and nokdujeon/bindaetteok (mung bean). Instead of making two large ones, they made smaller, more manageable individual rounds. They were of the perfect density as well with a nice crisp exterior giving into the softer filling and ingredients.

After a few courses of savory dishes, the subtly sweet bulgogi came out next. Ribbons of marinated bulgogi meat with mushroom and green onion comes swimming in the broth which cooks on the table and keeps everything nice and moist. 

This bulgogi is actually a bit different from their famed yooksoo bulgogi in which the pan has a raised center to cook the meat with a moat of the broth in which you cook cellophane noodles in to eat with. 

This bulgogi is a bit more "wet" as it's cooked in the broth but ever so tender and such a delicate balance of sweet and savory. It's no wonder their bulgogi variety has been a classic favorite for decades. 

For our mains, each person selected a different variety- the Seoul style mul naengmyeon, the goldongban, and the manduguk.

The mulnaengmyeon looks similar to Pyongyang style naengmyeon around the city except a scattering of ground beef comes atop as a finish.

Generally, Pyongyang style naengmyeon mixes both dongchimi and meat broth (usually beef) but in Hanilkwan's case this is a purely beefy, Seoul-style naengmyeon. It's lip-smacking umami-ness in full from the beef slices to the rich broth. And given that they use premium hanwoo beef here, you know it's the good stuff. I still prefer the more subtle and delicate balance of flavors of a bowl of good ol PYN but this is quite excellent in its own right.

The goldongban is another dish that's quite well known here. In a steaming hot metal pot, the premium bibimbap comes with some 10 premium, seasonal ingredients. Each season bringing a slightly altered ingredient to the bibimbap. This isn't a carelessly thrown together bibimbap but even the rice is cooked in dashima to give each grain of rice density and flavor while the provided gochujang is made in-house and cooked in beef bones broth for an extra dimension. 

No gloppy, cloyingly sweet, pure red bibimbap here and instead the textures and flavors all share the stage. Highly recommended.

The manduguk continues with Hanilkwan's characteristic lighter elements with a broth that's deep in flavor yet light. Five handmade dumplings come with the soup encasing within it a mixture of meat and veggie goodness. Coming on the end of the meal, this is filling yet not burdensome so your stomach is warm and full at a pleasant level. Particularly great for a chilly evening. 

And sujeonggwan (iced cinnamon drink) to cleanse the palate.

Final Thoughts:
Just as Korea's various regions have their distinct culinary characteristic and style, some visitors may be surprised to know Seoul has its own branch on the vast Korean culinary tree. Historically as the capital, with its abundance of fresh ingredients from all corners of the peninsula passing through, the cooking relied less on heavy sauces and seasoning and to focus on the quality of the ingredients. Hanilkwan is a reflection of this culinary style which, to modern day Korean cuisine, may seem less flavorful, even bland, in comparison. 

But take the time to enjoy the work and preparation that has gone into each ingredient, each sauce, each rice grain at Hanilkwan and you may just discover what made the style of food in Seoul fit literally for kings. 

서울 강남구 압구정로38길 14
13, Changgyeonggung-ro 35-gil, Seoul, Republic of Korea

From exit 2 of Apgujeong Station, turn around to the main Apgujeong-ro and follow it along eastwards for about 350 meters until you get to Apgujeong-ro 38-gil. Turn right and head down the street for about 100 meters until you see Hanilkwan on your right.



Valet parking available for 3K.

Beer, soju, makgeolli and other Korean alcohol available as is a small wine list.

Branches of Hanilkwan exists in Seoul Station, Yeongdeungpo, Galleria Department Store (in Apgujeong), Gwanghwamun, Euljiro, and more.