What’s in a name? Mafia Kitchen conjures visions of a dark and smoky dining room, plates piled high with pasta and scampi and gruff suited men who guard the door.
But if there is one thing to know in Seoul, it’s never to judge a book by its cover.
Instead of a members-only manifesto, Mafia Kitchen caters to the discerning diner without a lick of pretension, offering thoughtful and straightforward dishes best ordered in stages, allowing more time to linger over each plate.
Inside, the space is small and nondescript with a single row of bench seating against the main wall. A stark uniformity to the interior must be intentional, perhaps to steer focus to the food, the company and the service. Once it comes, the food steals the show indeed. But first, drinks.
Served in a Jetsonian glass, the Red Mafia glowed scarlet with poppy petals that floated at the surface like tissue paper. The drink was revitalizing and tart, and it defied Seoul’s fad of cloying iced beverages while shamelessly following suit of another. When we ordered, our server stepped to the cooler in the front of the dining room and mixed it in plain view. He filled the glass, then pulled out a whippit (a steel container full of nitrous oxide) and explained that it would carbonate the drink without diluting it.
Nonalcoholic, sure, but not completely harmless: the poppies could show up on a drug test, and diners are given express warning on the menu. Less impressive was the Black Mafia, a drink that looked simple and pretty in a short beer glass but tasted like fizzy beer water mixed with the ends of an iced coffee. OB, Max and Budweiser are on tap. A single option of Moscato by the glass is available and bottles of Absolute or Smirnoff vodka sell for 54,000 won each. No red wine. Maybe the mafiosos got to it first.
We ordered eggs with mushrooms and white truffle oil, and it came within minutes. Served on a cast iron tray, the eggs were fried to a perfect sunny side up, the yolks surrounded by white mushrooms and razor-thin Parmesan shavings. Truffle oil is perhaps the only reason to order this dish, unless you are opposed to the idea completely. From what I could tell, it was the only artificial ingredient on the menu. At least the chefs use it at a minimum—just enough to enhance an otherwise homely dish.
Balsamic-soaked squid was grilled and cut into rings and came simply plated next to a scoop of corn mash. The flavor of balsamic would be better stronger, but the dish was super appealing to the eye, cooked just right and perfect to share.
We ordered the two menu items with Ibérico pork imported from Spain. These pigs are raised on a diet of acorns and prized for their sweet taste and even fat marbling which melts as it cooks, giving the meat a buttery texture that haunts long after the last bite is gone.
In the first dish, cubes of stir-fried pork, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and garlic arrived nested under a soft-boiled egg. We took a spoon to the egg and it burst, coating the bowl in a velvety pool of marigold yolk. Sweet, tangy and rich, the dish was balanced and playful. In the second, a piece of cherry blossom-smoked pork was topped with persimmon chutney. My dining companion thought the persimmon blurred the taste of the meat. He wanted more pork, and who could blame him?
One week later, I am still thinking of Ibérico pigs and wondering what other secrets Mafia Kitchen has to reveal. Next time, I won’t sit in the front of the restaurant by the window. I’ll ask for a stool in the back facing the open kitchen where I can watch the young and ambitious chefs in action. I didn’t know it until last week, but as a diner, this is exactly the kind of connection I have longed for in Seoul.
Dinner for two, with drinks (nonalcoholic): 52,000 won, but you could easily eat lighter for less.