Lee’s Korean Restaurant Nagrin
At Via Gustavo Fara 17, in Milan, there is a Korean restaurant where I have eaten several times and which has always given me great satisfaction: it is called Lee’s Korean Restaurant Nagrin.
Mr. Cho, owner, agreed to meet me to tell me everything there is to know about this place and why it is so important for Milan and the Italians.
I meet Mr. Cho on a torrid afternoon in Milan’s summer. He makes me sit in his restaurant and agrees to be interviewed because he cares that people know Korean culture. The kitchen is a medium. His story is very interesting and he kidnaps me right away. I am struck by kindness and deep honesty. I immediately discover that, in fact, the place is run by his wife, who is the chef (the restaurant takes its name from his last name). Both opened their first restaurant in 2009 with the specific purpose of making their culture known to Italians. The two began working in Italy in the cultural field: Mr. Cho was in fact in charge of Cricci, the Cultural Research Center between Korea and Italy. There he taught his own language for thirteen years, also publishing books. He tells me about the great difficulties he faced at the beginning. Korea was not only obscured by history but there was also a very strong prejudice, many people associated South Korea with that of the North, ignoring that it is instead one of the safest countries in the world.
At the time we were pioneers, we started talking about Korea long before we talked about K-pop and we did it with pride. But it was hard right away to let us know because the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Koreans wasn’t very clear to people. Korean cuisine has 5000 years of history behind it but it is also the least known Asian cuisine, Korea is the least known Asian country. Only the big brands, such as Samsung, are known to it, but behind it is a great culture that has made possible the development of this technology that has driven the entire country. At the beginning of the last century Korea did not exist because the Japanese Empire had annexed our country to theirs. So when Westerners saw an Asian artifact, for example, regardless of the country of origin, they said it was Chinese or Japanese. This was because there had been great cultural exchanges between those countries and the West at that time. After independence, in Korea there was the civil war that divided the country in two: in the 1960s Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. So as we tried to get up, China and Japan had had time to make themselves known in the world.
The big jump was made possible thanks to the wife who came up with the idea of opening a Restaurant of Korean cuisine: through food it would have been easier and more immediate to make known their origins. And thanks to this choice, Mr. Cho was called by the University of Milan who asked him to teach at the facility in the Department of Sciences of Linguistic Mediation and Intercultural Studies. This concomitant of events gave a lot of visibility to the restaurant that has been very successful even among Italians. In December 2017 the choice to move to a larger room (the current one). Here, too, the desire to make your land known is palpable: a projector has been installed from which films about Korea are aired that concern landscapes, daily life, art, clothing and so on. It is therefore not just a question of eating an authentic meal, but of knowing a distant culture through various stimuli. The room staff is made up of young and enthusiastic girls. They are trained continuously to give customers as much detailed information as possible.
And once you’ve browsed through the menu, it’s the words “High Korean cuisine.” But immediately I get instructed:
When we talk about Korean haute cuisine we mean the application of traditional technique to cooking. The basis is definitely the fermentation that is applied to sauces: spicy (Gochujang), soy and soy paste (Doenjang). The Japanese also have fermented soybean (Miso) but it is different because they use microorganisms and different conservation times. And that’s what makes the difference in taste, otherwise it would be a modern kitchen. We are traditional.
He explains that their kimchi is 100% traditional and even many Korean customers praise him, saying it’s better than what they can find from them (in Korea many restaurateurs buy it already done). And the basics they can’t prepare import them directly from Korea.
The base of the fermented sauces is not possible in Italy because it takes terracotta jars in which to mature the product for too long. But once we buy these ingredients we work them according to a secret technique, without using additives or glutamate. The taste is therefore unique: glutamate, for example, is used in the kitchens of many restaurants but tends to standardize the taste. That doesn’t happen here. And with the same dedication and attention we work the bibimbap or the bulgogi, choosing the best fillet, preparing the best marinating possible. There is no better dish here than the other: they are all unique because they are fresh and handcrafted.
Mr. Cho explains to me that cutlery also has its own history and it is important to know it because every detail is culture. Start by showing me the real soup.
In ancient times only kings and nobles could eat this soup. To this are connected the cutlery: the nobles used them in silver because if touching with the cutlery the food changed color, it meant that there was poison. When the use of steel was introduced, cutlery was made from this material. In Korea, wood has always been considered unhygienic for chopsticks.
From Lee’s Korean you can also enjoy sweets that you can hardly find in other restaurants, it is often difficult to find them even in Korea, such as gotgamssam (dried perison with walnuts and pine nuts inside), hodugangjeong (caramelized nuts with powder of roasted cereals) Yakgwa (flour dough biscuits with honey with cinnamon syrup and Korean jug). They also do bingsu according to the ancient recipes: the machine they use to chop ice does not make it like snow, but as a granita. In the beginning, the ice was in fact scratched by hand and had a few raw pieces. Drinks include soju, craft beers, rice wine flavored with medicinal herbs, Korean black raspberry rice wine, and Maggulli (very strong fermented rice wine very famous in Korea), seine tea (a plant from which seeds are taken to make the tea) and the yummy sueonggwa (traditional ginger drink, cinnamon and dried perisons in infusion) made by them.
In conclusion, Lee's Korean is confirmed as a restaurant that offers a wide range of choices, so excellent if it is the first time that you eat Korean. The portions, however, in my opinion, are not abundant and their price is quite high compared to the average. Certainly the raw material is first choice and it is cooked properly, but we should review some small precautions such as the banchan included in the price of the cover: in practically all the other Korean restaurants (as well as in Korea) they are offered, while here they are optional apart from an exorbitant price.