All it took was a glass of Basque txakolina white wine with a chopstick of seared beef tongue and boiled bean sprouts to realize that I have been drinking the wrong adult beverage with Korean BBQ all along.
Photo by Javier Cabral
Is there anything better than throwing back a half-dozen frosted mugs of Hite or OB-Bear beer while eating half your body weight in medium-rare pieces of kalbi and charred kimchi? Sure, shots of soju and magkeolli are cool, but only if you are in the mood to get utterly shitfaced. Cold beer and sizzling meat, however, are arguably the best food-and-drink pairing on the planet.
Except that's wrong—so very, very wrong. All it took was a lightly chilled glass of Basque txakolina white wine with a chopstick of seared beef tongue and boiled bean sprouts to change my life.
"The inspiration for my wine recommendations come from the thought of textures and different levels of meat caramelization. It's all about the grill," says François Renaud, the wine director for Hanjip, a new Korean restaurant found not in the three-mile-long smoky meat oasis of LA's Koreatown, but in the unlikely location of Culver City. "I like beer, but in my opinion beer is only for the afternoon, not for the night time—I drink wine during this time, no matter what," Renaud says.
Renaud was born in Le Havre, Normandy, which is a region of France that is not recognized for having any wine. He is not a certified sommelier, either. Before he became a wine expert, he was a politics staff writer for Le Parisien and a music writer for Rock & Folk and Rolling Stone France. Yet this hasn't stopped him from shattering his customer's expectations when it comes to pairing wine with Korean food. His grandfather is a certified Chevalier du Teste-Vin (roughly translated, a "knight of wine tasters"), and he learned everything he knows through the school of hard knocks after moving to the US.
On a Tuesday evening, the small restaurant in downtown Culver City is at capacity with a line of about four parties eagerly waiting to get in. Amid all of the thick meat fumes emanating from the charcoal grills are glistening bottles of wine at almost every table.
"We sell glasses of La Cigarrera like hotcakes here, and this wouldn't happen in any other restaurant," says Reynaud. He's talking about a super-floral manzanilla sherry from Spain made from Palomino grapes. "I playfully say that wine is like soju for wine lovers; it is good as an aperitif and goes great with banchan and grilled prawns."
The wine list at Hanjip is tiny right now but each and every bottle serves a culinary purpose. As a general rule of thumb, Renaud suggests looking for wines that have even the slightest amount of citrus elements in them. For bulgogi, try a red like D'Anguerra Montsant, a biodynamic and organic Catalan garnacha. For the side dishes like crispy seafood pancakes, pour a glass of that aforementioned txakolina. And for white meats like pork belly, there is no better pairing than with a bottle of béarn blanc.
The idea to start pairing wine with Korean food was built into the concept of the restaurant: a Korean barbecue spot in West LA. It's a region of Los Angeles that caters to older, more moneyed residents of the city who are less likely to venture out to Koreatown for a dining experience. Renaud, along with owner and restaurateur Stephane Bombet and chef Chris Oh, knew they had to think a little differently their restaurant.
"I was on the fence about it at first, but Korean food needs to evolve like Japanese food and Chinese food did," affirms Oh. "Pairing it with wine is the next step for it to gain global awareness, so I'm down for it. Myself? I'm a dude and still gotta do my soju bombs, but that's only because I'm ghetto like that."
"This is how people want to eat nowadays," adds Bombet. "You grill your own food in the middle of a table, you taste it, you share with everybody else. Everybody loves it." Hanjip is Bombet's first foray into Asian restaurants, but the concept have proved so successful that he is already finalizing a second location—one with a full liquor license.
"I can't wait to start pairing traditional French spirits like Armagnac. I can totally see a little glass of calvados next to my pork belly," says Renaud.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in December, 2015.