By Dan Foley
Once upon a time in Seoul, finding a quality cheeseburger joint was a struggle. Every place had the same problems: patties so small you could barely taste the meat, overly-processed, generic cheese, and strange-tasting sweet buns that had no business housing a burger. It was a sad existence for anyone craving some honest-to-God American-style ground round.
“Korea needed a better burger,” says the twenty-six-year old Sohl Kim. He is owner of Apgujeong’s Salt and Butter, a restaurant featuring the humble tagline: “Casual American Dining.” Of course, nothing epitomizes American dining more than the cheeseburger, so this is something that Sohl takes very, very seriously. What is his philosophy on the perfect burger? “It’s all about quality.”
The process begins with a slab of USDA chuck meat, twice-ground, and hand-formed into a substantial patty. He seasons it with nothing more than salt, then grills it in olive oil, making sure to touch it only twice, once to flip it, and once to take it off. After all, you have to let the meat do its thing. The cheese varies from burger to burger, havarti for the bobcat and American for the pub, but it’s always quality and never processed. “A burger should be about the meat and the cheese,” says Sohl. “And the bun should never take away from it.” The buns he buys daily, fresh from a local bakery. They are lightly buttered and toasted until golden brown. This process is dogma, done to ensure quality and flavor, so it’s no surprise the restaurant was named as such: “I called it Salt and Butter because those are the basic elements of cooking– you just need a little seasoning, a little oil and fat. Food is simple.”
Don’t mistake simplicity for ignorance, though, as Sohl’s qualification are sound. He attended Le Cordon Bleu in his hometown of Los Angeles, California. “L.A. is a burger town,” he noted, smiling. In addition, he received a bachelor’s from NYU in Hospitality and Management, with a focus on food and beverage. From there on, he spent his time working in a number of top restaurants in both L.A. and Seoul. When the opportunity came for this young entrepreneur to open up his own restaurant on Apgujeong Rodeo, he couldn’t turn it down. After six months of construction, Salt and Butter opened its doors for the first time in the spring of 2012.
Alongside the burgers, the menu features an extensive selection of American specialties. His spicy chicken sandwich, a deep fried bird smothered in hot sauce and slaw, is dripping with flavor and sure to fill you up. The avocado salad is a crisp blend of hand-tossed greens, with just the right amount of lemon and olive oil, and the shitake pasta is a creamy fusion of class and comfort. Alongside these are a slew of other favorites from home, including real American micro-brews on tap, chili fries saturated in home-made chili, and an 8oz steak that will make you forget you’re in Korea. Even the bacon is smoked in house, by Sohl himself.
The layout of the restaurant is unlike any in Seoul. By day, natural light pours into the wooden interior through two walls of windows, and by night, it has the warm, glow of an upscale New England pub. The kitchen is wide open and in the dead-center of the venue, surrounded by all wood-counter for total transparency. During the warmer months, they feature patio seating, and the background music comes from the always updated playlist of the owner himself. Salt and Butter is part of a new movement in Seoul cuisine, trying to bring an element of quality and uniqueness to Korean dining that hasn’t been seen before; in essence, an attempt to bring restaurants to a next level.
“What should a restaurant be? A restaurant should be an experience, a memory. A place with a million small details and timing, cleanliness order, it’s a performance in many ways… There should be something you take away.”
At the helm of this performance is a friendly and knowledgeable staff. The chefs are well-versed in the art of culinary design, and are happy to make recommendations and exceptions. This is all done with a holistic experience in mind, something authentic and American found on the busy streets of Seoul.
“I think we make the best burger in Seoul,” says Sohl. “Come into our restaurant. There’s no pretention. We just want you to come, have some good food, and be satisfied.”
More info: http://www.saltandbutterkorea.com/