I had been meaning to go to HanGawi restaurant for months but had an unbelievably difficult time getting anyone to go with me. Something about the phrase "Korean vegetarian place" made most people immediately lose interest. Fortunately, I finally made it to this little K-Town gem last weekend and enjoyed a meal that was well worth the wait.
My party made dinner reservations in advance, and I would recommend others do the same, since it was completely full the entire time we were there, though never loud. The entrance to HanGawi is dark and unassuming, to the point where it doesn't look like an open business. Pulling open the door, however, we slipped out of the bitter cold and into a dimly lit foyer lined in rich, dark wood. The hostess directed us to remove our shoes and place them on the floor, which staff discreetly tucked away as we were led up a raised platform to our table. The table appeared to be very low to the floor, but there was actually a well for guests' legs, so we could still sit in the Western style once we clambered down into our places. With a colorful butt cushion for each of us, we quickly settled into our cozy environs and studied the menus by flickering candlelight. All of us agreed this would make a good date restaurant, assuming any guy could get over the fact that there is no meat on the menu.
HanGawi has an interesting selection of beverages, and since my nose was still numb from being outside, I ordered a cup of the date paste tea. Sadly, the person who took our drink orders was not our assigned waiter, and we did not actually get our drinks until our second inquiry near the end of the meal.
The dinner menu has two prix fixe four-course options, but the rest of the menu looked so enticing that we decided to select an assortment of items and dine family-style. Our waiter smilingly accomodated our request for four sets of plates and bowls so that we could all share each dish, and I have to say that the little golden soup bowls, earth-colored ceramic plates, cloth napkins, and wooden utensils lent a refined yet rustic charm to the meal.
First to arrive were the appetizers: kabocha pumpkin pancakes and spicy baby dumplings. The pancakes were fried to perfection - light golden brown and crisp on the outside, a warm, chewy yet fluffy texture inside, and a subtle pumpkin flavor that made them stand out from the more common scallion pancakes typically served in Asian restaurants. Since the place is vegetarian, I am 99.9% certain that the "baby" in the spicy baby dumplings does not refer to their filling. Yet neither could it describe their size, for each turned out to be a respectably dumpling-sized two mouthfuls of deliciousness. The inside was reminiscent of tender minced shrimp, but again, likely not. Since none of us could keep from devouring them long enough to inspect the filling more closely, they retain their mystery until next time.
Next came the entrees: Mongolian hot pot, spicy rice cakes, HanGawi vegetable and mushroom wraps, and tofu pizza. The stand-out here had to be the tofu pizza - thin, crisp squares of fried tofu topped with finely diced shitake mushrooms and zucchini and drizzled with a strawberry-pinenut puree. There was no way to eat these neatly, and they were so good that we didn't try. Our waiter assembled our wraps table-side, and though their pale crepe-like exteriors couldn't compete visually next to the colorful tofu pizza, the medley of flavors definitely got our attention, both with and without the accompanying tangy dipping sauce.
The Mongolian hot pot turned out to be a spicy soup containing several kinds of fungi, cabbage, leeks, and a few random vegetables. The enoki mushrooms were a personal favorite of mine.
Tossed in a red pepper sauce with vegetables and fried tofu, the spicy rice cakes caused unexpected confusion by closely resembling the sliced white mushrooms that were playing hide-and-seek with them in the dish. They weren't actually that spicy compared to the hot pot, but with a soft, chewy texture and decidedly cute appearance, there was palpable tension over who would get the last one.
When the tea finally arrived, the meal was all but done. Luckily, the beauty of vegetarian dining is that there is always room at the end for tea. My date paste tea arrived in a large, round cup, shimmering orange and gold with pine nuts and minced date pieces floating on the surface. It gave off the most tantalizing sweet aroma and had a flavor to match, erasing any need for dessert. Of course, that didn't stop us from going to Koryodang afterwards anyway, but it was only to prolong what had already been a delightful evening with the help of some tiramisu and chocolate chai.