It’s been ages since I had decent Korean food in Dubai. The last time I tried Korean food at a place that had all the markings of a foodie gem, a roach scuttled out of the grill and did the Gangnam all over my silverware.
My foetal blog post was aborted at that very moment.
I recovered months later and finally faced Korean food again, this time at Mannaland. This place is probably not headline news for anyone who’s been around Satwa [no. Satwa is not next to Zuma. The Horror.], but there are a lot of obvious foodie gems I just haven’t managed to hit yet, and Mannaland is one of them.
On a separate note, an interesting observation sprouted out of my Korean meal time discussions with Potson - the willing soul that I dragged not once, not twice, but thrice to Mannaland because their menu is a gold mine of tantalizingly named dishes that need to be dug out thoughtfully, over multiple sittings. It's the observation that I've started stuffing chopsticks into my ears when someone calls me a food critic or a restaurant reviewer. I know it's late in the blogging game to be saying this, but here it is nevertheless:
[As drafted in pretty legalese by my lovely lawyers] My blog is a collection of my personal food opinions, experiences and stories. It's as loose, unstructured, and laissez-faire as it can get, and it doesn't aspire to be any loftier than that. If you’re looking for a standardized, objective, fail-proof, 100% accurate set of reviews in Dubai, then…let me know when you’ve discovered it (and what substance you were smoking at the time of the discovery.)
[Kidding. The day I can afford lawyers, it'll be all Zuma and no Satwa for me.]
With that huge disclaimer looming over our heads, let's talk about Mannaland's selection of banchan, aka the assorted complimentary tapa-style dishes at the start of a typical Korean meal. While Kimchi is always featured on the banchan show, Mannaland rotates the selection so that we got to try a couple of new ones each time we visited. Some were really addictive, like the fried tofu or the spiced peanuts, some were moderately pleasing like the kimchi (I've had better, sadly at the roach restaurant) and the sesame-sprinkled seaweed, and some were forgotten after the initial chopstick pluck, like this sliced up omelette roll...
Moving on to the goodies after the nibbly banchan, here's the dish that was the star of all three visits for me, a shocker because it was 100% veggie: The squishy, sticky stone pot of vegetable bibimbap (Yachae Dolsot Bibimbap).
I beg you to order the bibimbap with an egg, runny at the yolk, firm at the whites, speared at the table and folded around the rice and veggies crowded into the pot. Forgetting the egg would be monumental loss to the dish - who doesn’t want gooey egg sizzled up against the hot sides of stone pot, all crispy and fried up between grains of sticky rice?
Also worthy of a thumbs-partially-up was this cold buckwheat noodle soup, just the sort of liquid that I'd want splashing around my mouth at the peak of summer.
I can see myself [feel free to replace analogy with the Bond Girl of your choice] as the skinny-thin pretty chopstick, wearing a slinky soy-coloured bikini [the kinds made for chopsticks], escaping the heat by plunging myself into this cold sesame-sprinkled bath, topped to the brim with a yarn of buckwheat noodles, a boiled egg, sliced cucumbers, apples, and two lean slices of beef. Something about the delicate smooth broth against the crunchy tart apples made the whole experience very refreshing. But beware, if you're a man pounding his fists for louder and stronger flavours, you might agree with Potson and find the soup a touch bland.
The Mandoo Jeongol was something we ordered on our third lunchtime visit - the concept of dumplings floating about in broth excites me in ways you cannot even begin to imagine.
Sadly, the servers...
...could not give me a definitive answer about what type of meat was lurking within the dumplings of my Mandoo Jeongol,
...then after a scuttle back to the kitchen...
...claimed that the pinkish mince was definitely beef
...then clarifying that really, they don’t usually know because the dumplings are store-bought.
...honestly, that entire sequence breaks my heart.
I’ll still go back to Mannaland, but I’ll table my questions next time and deal with the fact that I’ll never be able to really get a true dissection of what I am eating there. Should you follow my footsteps and order the dish of store-bought Mandu in Jeongol (casserole), let me assure you that it most likely contains some combination of chicken (or lamb?) mince dumplings in a mildly-seasoned beef (or chicken?) broth. And even if it contains none of the aforementioned ingredients, and instead comprises of some weirdo mush of pounded toad's toes stirred in with puréed snake skin, I bet you'd agree that it's pleasingly hearty and wholesome.
The seafood and spring onion pancake (haemul pajeon) was a starter I had my hopes pinned on, it had the makings of something that would be maddeningly munchy and addictive. Munchy it was not, there was far too much grease to make this anything more than a finger lubricant before our chopsticks workout.
The beef bulgogi didn't rock my world the way bugogi has in the past. The marinade was a couple notches sweeter than the earthier, beefier versions I've had elsewhere in the past. But marinade aside, I don't think I've done full justice to the dish. Rather than letting me grill the meat to my preferred doneness at the table, the servers brought our bulgogi out pre-cooked - in fact, over-cooked and somewhat chewy. I still happily wrapped up the beef slivers in crunchy lettuce with spots of fermented soy bean paste, but sizzling the meat at the table is at the heart of my love for bulgogi. Take that away from me, and you have any old pile of marinated beef.
Of course, all that said and done, I effectively killed my own argument for table-side BBQ'ing on our second Mannaland trip, when we asked to grill kalbi at the table. The key to good Korean BBQ is to assign someone to monitor the grill and then ostracize them until the meat is perfectly cooked and tweezed off of the grill. Sadly, Potson and I started chattering around some profound topic or another, left these fat-streaked glistening short ribs on the grill a little too long, and finally awoke to the harsh reality that they had been zapped into rubber. Beefy, salty, well-marinated rubber, but rubber nevertheless. And doubly worse because it really was our fault.
Last, and not entirely memorable, were these rolls of sushi-like Kimbap. Stuffed with sticky rice, imitation crab, cucumber, carrots and three other ingredients that didn't announce themselves to my tastebuds, these are perfectly sized for pecking at the start of the meal. Though admittedly, at 50 dirhams a plate, they do hurt the wallet more than they help the tummy.
Every one of my visits has been important in reaffirming why Mannaland is a solid choice for an extensive range of Korean fare, but definitely not the most flavourful I’ve had across the sum-total of my Korean experiences in New York, Houston and Dubai. Then again, who cares if I've sampled Korean food in three cities, when none of them are in Korea? Mannaland might be the most authentic of the lot, and passionate Korean foodies would have every right to whip me with the strongest buckwheat noodle they have were I to claim otherwise.
Shogun is still my favourite pick of the city. Any other Korean contenders you'd like to put out there?
Mina Road, Opposite Ramada Jumeirah Hotel, Satwa
Phone: +971 (4)3451300 | (4)3453200 | (50)5522531 | (50)5512033
Check out snippets of their menu here