BUSAN, South Korea -- If you read last year’s travel feature in the BBC, "Busan is a genuine all-rounder that mixes a healthy outdoor lifestyle with a love of the arts and an exciting nightlife scene . . . emerging from different stations along Busan's subway can often leave you surprised that you are still in the same city."
I have to agree, it’s a great city to live in and what was once a city of drab run of the mill restaurants with little imagination in their design is now a place with great new concepts. One such spot is Tap & Tapas/The Back Room. Entering T&T or TBR as they are more commonly known, the ambience and the decor give one the sense that they have transported somewhere else outside of Busan's second city.
On top of the unique atmosphere there is some good fare to be found on the menu. Plump, meaty bright green-yellow Castelvetrano olives, nutty manchengo cheese, housemade romesco, a log of Spanish chorizo, and a shank of jamon Iberico attached to an Iberian black pig hoof hanging between the end of the bar and the entrance to the kitchen for starters.
These imported goods betray manager and co-owners Jerome Park and chef Kim Do Hyung’s dedication to gastronomy and bringing a new style of cuisine to Busan. These products are prevalent all along the Brava/Mediterranean coast but have scarcely, if ever, been found here on the peninsula. Whether one is a gourmand, a foodie, or testing the waters of a different cuisine in a foreign place, Tap & Tapas has got you covered.
On the menu, for starters, is a lovely anju of a small bowl of olives. Pimiento stuffed green olives, pitted black, or the delicious, yet most elusive, Castelvetranos from Sicily dressed with a little oil and herbs. And there’s the six perfect bites of olives overstuffed with marinated, imported Spanish anchovies and red bell pepper, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon zest. Both small plates are the perfect accompaniments with a Tanqueray No. 10, Grey Goose, or Ketel One martini.
Other tapas to share are the seafood fries and chicken broqueta. The seafood fries are octopus, shrimp, and a crab quarters fried in a crispy panko (bread crumb) coating served with a roasted red pepper, toasted almond romesco sauce and aioli. The chicken broqueta offers two skewers of tender, flavorful Greek style grilled chicken breast pieces with grilled mushrooms, tri-colored bell peppers and blistered cherry tomatoes. Both compliment nicely a good pint, a glass of tinto (red wine), or the fruity, herbal house sangria.
For bigger plates, the chorizo cazuelo serves small chunks of imported Spanish chorizo (a cured pork sausage stuffed and hung in a natural casing, seasoned with spicy, smoky, dried red peppers) made from Iberico ham and diced potatoes in a piquant tomato sauce sprinkled with parsley served with baguette. It is an authentic standout to the menu. Also, the paella mixta is a nice entrée to share with a companion. Clams, mussels, grilled shrimp, baby octopus, chicken, with the rice seasoned with a rich, flavorful chicken stock. Both are ideal with a glass of Marques de Caceres, probably Spain’s most identifiable winery from its most prominent grape and region (tempranillo from Rioja). For me, chef Kim Do-hyung’s skill was evident by the way the seafood was precisely temped and the rice was flavored by his stock.
Speaking of Do-hyung’s kitchen, the one dish that I will certainly return for, even more frequently in the spring/summer, is the Mediterranean seafood salad. It is a mixture of iceberg, hearty green leaves, chicories, and Bulls Blood micro greens dressed in extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar loaded with steamed clams, mussels, and tenderly poached octopus, full baby octopi, and shrimp. This with a crisp, green apple, citrusy, and faintly mineral glass of the Albert Bichot Bourgogne chardonnay; this epitomizes food and wine pairing.
But besides expanding food culture here in Busan, T&T/TBR are beginning an incipient cocktail culture here, which for some of us, is certainly overdue. The bar expertly crafts modern interpretations of classic cocktails led by Bar Director Jerome Park and his staff. While the mojitos are very popular served in a manner that even Papa would quaff, the Marion exemplifies this fresh twist on a classic from the twenties: the gimlet. Finlandia vodka, fresh lime juice, and a touch of fine white sugar, shaken and served up with lemon mint and marjoram leaves, it is enhancing this prohibition era staple much like not only New York but the entire West Coast.
Speaking of prohibition era cocktails, after making the phone call to the surreptitious stairway hidden behind the bookcase to the beautiful speakeasy TBR, ask for Mi So for a proper negroni. Also, if upstairs, try the Classic Champagne which truly raises the bar to match this plush, sophisticated, clandestine oasis. A sugar cube, VSOP Hennessy, topped with Martini brut sparkling, garnished with lemon zest in a gold leaf powdered rimmed champagne flute. The quality drinks here are as equally alluring as the ambiance.
Once again, speaking of classics, the one that really should be tried is their take on the Moscow Mule, aka the TBR Mule. A superb house cocktail made in true classic fashion; Finlandia vodka, house-made ginger syrup, topped with house-made lemon/lime club soda served over in a copper mug garnished with a lime. This is the drink that brings me down to Haeundae when I’m missing the area.
While Tap & Tapas is called a gastropub and rightfully so for its attention to detail on premium quality ingredients prominently displayed all over the Spanish-Mediterranean menu and inspired cocktail list, T & T offers various ways to entertain; a great date night out to nosh, a place to celebrate, a beautiful, intimate nightclub, a wine bar, or a place to unwind with some of the most well-executed cocktails in town.
In my opinion, for style and substance, Tap & Tapas/TBR is the most inviting nightlife spot in our increasingly cosmopolitan Busan. Salud!
You can visit their website at tbrbusan.com/tbr, on Facebook or their Haps' page with more info and a map.
Also enjoy live Jazz from Crossnote every Thursday night.
Editor's note: TBR is an advertiser with Haps Magazine.