an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Tallinn’s Gotsu’s Got It!

 

Although you might be tempted to ignore this small Korean restaurant half-hidden in the basement of a gray Soviet-era building based only on its surface appearance, Gotsu’s got it all – from Tallinn’s top tasting Asian food to the city’s best value meal. These, in turn, have generated a loyal Tallinn-based following and a steady flow of Korean visitors from the far side of the continent. Many of Tallinn’s small restaurants would benefit greatly by making Gotsu’s owner Kyuho their Seonsaeng (선생) or Teacher. And I don’t mean that everyone should become his apprentice and learn how to cook Korean food – although that might not be such a bad idea …. What I mean is that everyone should do what Kyuho does. Tallinn’s food scene would then improve by leaps and bounds as a result.

So, what exactly does Kyuho do? Well, if you look at Gotsu’s menu you will see that he does very little – or, to be more exact, he serves very few dishes – about a half-dozen mains – rather than the dozens or scores that you will see at most other places. But what Kyuho does, he does very well because he is fully focused on what he does. His aim is to achieve culinary perfection in every dish. And he does come close.

To paraphrase George Orwell, “All dishes are equal. Yet some dishes are more equal than others.” On his cool minimalist website, Kyuho recommends that first-time visitors start with his Fried Chicken. And his KFC is pretty spectacular – made with a secret recipe which he updates from time to time. My friends and I were recently debating the results of his most recent upgrade which were almost too subtle to notice – although the chicken’s crust was just a little bit crunchier, the sauce was just a little bit tangier, and the meat was just that little bit more flavorful than before. Kyuho’s KFC remains his restaurant’s best-seller – you will often notice everyone at any given table ordering it. Oh, yeah. In case you’ve never had it before, KFC means Korean Fried Chicken and not that other kind ….

When I go to Gotsu, I usually order my favorite Korean dish: Kyuho’s delicious bibimbap mixed rice bowl. While the vegetables Kyuho uses always change with the season – or with whatever he finds at the market, it is the grilled meat flavored with his homemade gochujang soy-chili sauce and then topped with an egg (sometimes whole, sometimes sliced) that keeps me coming back for more. My only wish is that Kyuho would make some hard-core dolsot-bibimbap one day. There is just something about the way that rice in contact with a hot stone bowl turns crisp and golden brown kicking up the bibimbap’s flavor and mouth feel yet another notch.

Gotsu also serves up a nice bulgogi fired meat dish – even if you don’t get grill it at your table over a charcoal fire which to me represents Korean culinary heaven. If you order the bulgogi, go for the extra ssam or lettuce wrap so that you can fill your culinary creation with his home-made kimchi (fermented cabbage) and gochujang. If you find that all this extra spice is right for you, then you can usually buy a jar of either his kimchi or gochujang to take home with you so that can you jazz up your own meals.

Other than the Big Three, Gotsu also serves up a nice and spicy bowl of Kimchi Stew with Pork. This is the hottest dish on the menu and great for clearing out your sinuses when you have a head cold. I’m also fully on board with his most recent addition to the menu of Kimchi Mantu (steamed dumplings). The new mantu replace – or to be more exact repackage – the tasty filling from his earlier Rice Rolls with Minced Meat and Spicy Chili Sauce which never got the attention they deserved – perhaps because they seemed like a Korean mash-up of bibimbap and sushi which is kind of what that dish is. Fortunately, Kyuho’s new steamed dumpling delivery vehicle makes his delicious kimchi-infused filling even more shareable when you go to Gotsu with your friends.

If you look, you’ll also find a handful of other small dishes on the menu. Order some of them – or all of them – to build your own banchan – the small plates essential for any proper Korean feast. And if you’re still hungry after your meal, you can always order some of Gotsu’s signature lemon meringue pie for desert (assuming it hasn’t run out yet). While most people will just order some water or tea to accompany their food, I love the fact that I can order their delicious homemade lemonade – the citrus provides a nice counterpoint to the chili’s heat while the raspberries floating on top deliver a nice sweet accent at the end of my meal.

But perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that Gotsu’s still got it even eight years after it opened. Gotsu still generates that London-level no-reservations street food buzz which has people lining up in front of the restaurant even before its doors open promptly at 12 noon. At this same point in their normal life-cycle, most of Tallinn’s other mainstream restaurants would be ready to fade into culinary oblivion – or already gone. Gotsu, however, is going stronger than ever. While I have some Estonian friends who don’t think that any food is worth standing in line for – perhaps a built-in post-Soviet aversion, Gotsu is the kind of place that usually changes their minds.

The reason that people line up before High Noon – although usually not all that long before 12 as this is Tallinn after all – is that by around 12:15 (or 12:30 at the latest) all of the restaurant’s first-come-first-served tables are usually filled for the first lunch seating. As for me, I’ve always found that waiting in a line (ideally a short one or at least one that moves quickly) builds anticipation for a good meal. And when you do finally make it into Gotsu’s, you’ll find a level of noise and energy similar to what you might expect at a popular place in London. The reason for this is simple: good food generates good vibrations and a happy crowd.

Speaking of good food, some of my other Estonian friends who count themselves among Kyuho’s loyal followers were worried when they learned that I was going to write a review of Gotsu. Their fear was that I would only make this impressive little Korean restaurant even more crowded than it already is. My response was that Tallinn needs a culinary gold standard – something other restaurants should aspire to become. Gotsu is it. After all, here is a place where the focus is fully on the food – you can tell that by its minimalist décor. And yet, there are those details – the exposed limestone column, the bits of wood trim, or the photo from the year he opened – that show that everything has actually been carefully placed to focus everyone’s attention on the restaurant’s true star: the tasty homemade Korean food. Although my butt wasn’t built for it, you can even go Korean Old School if you want and sit on the floor on a cushion on the heated stone ondol in the back room. Just be sure to take off your shoes before going in!

If you want to avoid the disappointment of not finding a place to sit, my recommendation is that you go to Gotsu after 2PM when the lunch rush is over – but long before the dinner rush begins. Both meal times attract a crowd as the restaurant is only open from 12 Noon to 8 PM from Monday to Friday. Don’t plan on going too late either as Kyuho sometimes closes early – especially if he has run out of KFC or other essential items. One of the advantages of going there around 3 PM is that you might spot Kyuho himself or at least his beloved dog which will often wander around the restaurant when it is less crowded and when people aren’t busy re-arranging the furniture to suit their needs.

One of the many things you should admire about Kyuho the Seonsaeng is that he is so well centered. The restaurant business is a tough business – and yet why should he have to cook for more than 40 hours a week? And why should he have to work late nights or even weekends? Instead, the master makes his students – his diners – adjust to his schedule. You will also find that Gotsu closes down in the summer and winter for weeks at a time so that Kyuho can recharge his batteries. More power to him, I say. Those of us who are his followers just adjust our schedules around him. As a result, I tend not to worry too much about Kyuho burning out as he knows his limits like any good master and uses them to his own advantage.

For me, Kyuho embodies the three basic rules of the modern street food aesthetic – do what you do, do it well, and then do it over and over again. This Western aesthetic, of course, was borrowed from Asia – best summed up in Tampopo (1985) – the first and greatest food movie of them all. As long as Kyuho’s approach doesn’t change, I’ll keep going back to Gotsu again and again. And as a final nod to my friends who were worried that yet another positive review would lead to bigger crowds, I won’t even tell you where to find the restaurant or give you its exact address. If you were meant to make your way to Gotsu, I’m convinced you will.

 

Image: My jar of Kyuho’s gochujang paste ready to be deployed for any flavor emergencies.

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