Review: Cat Cafe, Myeong-dong, Seoul

As a self-confessed animal lover, one of the best experiences I had when travelling in Seoul was visiting the Cat Cafe in Myeongdong! I had read a lot about cat cafes in other cities in Asia, and it just seemed like the cleverest idea – somewhere to sit down with a cup of tea and CUDDLE A KITTY CAT! How is that not a recipe for winning and having the best experience of your life?

The cafe is down a side street and then up three flights of stairs, so it can be hard to find. However, they have a mascot who stands at a nearby busy cross street in the centre of Myeongdong in a full cat costume, so once you spot it, you know you can’t be too far away.

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As you go in, you immediately change your shoes for a pair of slippers they give you before you even enter the space. You also have to buy a drink immediately before you can sit down and start playing with the cats. The drinks are much more expensive than usual (around $8 AUD for a cappucino), however as they don’t limit the amount of time you can spend in the cafe, you could conceivably stretch a single coffee out over the course of three or four hours and get as much petting time as you want.

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The staff are also quite strict about rules of the cafe, all designed to ensure the cats’ comfort. Things like, you’re not allowed to pick up the cats unless they specifically come up to you and jump in your lap.

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They also tell you about how to identify the cats that are most likely to bite or scratch when over-provoked. Cats who don’t play well with small children are marked by a special pointy felt collar.

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You also get the option of buying little cans of cat food which you can then feed to the cats. They all know how to listen out for the sound of a can being opened, and you can actually feed them with a teaspoon!

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I was really impressed by the design of the cafe itself. With lots of ledges built in for cats to sun themselves, and climbing frames that allowed them to climb up high and seat themselves high up away from human interference, they’ve really designed it for the cats comfort. If they need quiet time away from people, they can certainly get it!

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The staff are very impressive as well. They all clearly know all the cats by name and character…for instance, they know that this little charcoal cat loves to sprint and make a break for the door as soon as it opens, so they always grab him before any customers walk out!

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The staff were also dedicated to keeping the cat cafe clean, so while you might think that it could very easily get dirty with shedded cat hair, scattered litter and other icky things, it’s actually quite the opposite. In the two hours that we spent in the cat cafe, the staff went around at least four or five times with a mop that caught all the cat hair, and went around spraying and wiping all surfaces as well.

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K really enjoyed the Cat Cafe as well, even though he would be the first person to admit that he was probably more of a dog person prior to our getting together as a couple. Having now lived with my beloved cat Darcy for the past two years, I think I’ve managed to convert him to a cat lover!

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Going to the Cat Cafe in Myeongdong was a wonderful experience – not just for the opportunity to pet cats (something I was strongly missing since I hadn’t seen my own cat for two and a half weeks!), but also because it was the perfect chance to sit down and unwind after a busy day of being a tourist.

We actually went in the late afternoon/evening directly after we finished a tour of the DMZ (de-militarised zone) between North and South Korea. Having something fun and relaxing to do really helped to smooth out any sadness or heavy emotions that resulted from the war-centric day tour. I highly recommend a visit to the Cat Cafe to everyone!

April 2014: Eating in Seoul #2

For Part One of our Seoul eating adventures, please click here. Other holiday eating posts: Hong Kong and China.

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Barbecue is always going to be one of those meals you have when you go to Korea. We went for barbecue twice – once at a simple walk-in mum-and-dad joint, and the other in a much fancier part of Seoul. The difference in the two was mainly in the decor and the price – one came in at a comfortable $30 for two people, the other cost us $100. And honestly, I couldn’t see that there was much difference between the two dining experiences, and no distinguishable difference in the quality of the meat either!

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We spent one of our days in Seoul at LOTTE World, the world’s largest indoor amusement park. I find it absolutely incredible that LOTTE as a company has such a stranglehold on business in South Korea – from LOTTE supermarkets, candy, fast food chains, amusement parks and more. Such is capitalism! Anyway, no visit to an amusement park is complete without junk food – so Lotteria’s Lotz Burger and Bulgogi Burger it was! The burgers were pretty standard though – and even the bulgogi burger was no different from what McDonald’s Australia might produce as a “limited time Korean special”.

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Street-side and alleyway eating is always a highlight of any trip for me, and what I feel to be an excellent way to understand how locals eat. We visited Gwangjung market, one of the famous eating alleys near Dongdaemun Markets for a long multi-stage lunch one day. Made up of over 100 independent stalls all with their own specialty, you can find all kinds of foods here and move from stall to stall trying different dishes.

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We start off at a stall where the owner takes one look at me, asks me if I’m Chinese, then proceeds to talk to me in Chinese. She specialises in vegetarian dumplings, and K and I order a bowl to share. Filled with a spicy tofu and pickle mix, the soupy dumplings are filling, hearty, and unsurprisingly delicious considering the number of local workers queued up for a serve.

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We watch a lady making mung bean pancakes (Bindaetteok), quickly flipping and frying pancake after pancake with a variety of savoury fillings. K is fascinated by the bean grinder that she works next to, which constantly spins around and produces the batter that she uses as the base of the pancakes.

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Some of the Bindaetteok make it onto this cold display, where people can buy to takeaway and eat at home, or buy and have it heated it directly in front of them. Fried food is the order of the day at some of these stalls!

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In the mood for something a little healthier, we settle ourselves down at a stall with multiple bowls of heaped ingredients. It’s a “make your own rice salad” stall! Guided by a fellow Australian sitting next to us who’s teaching English in Seoul and helps us translate, we make our own healthy rice salad full of bean shoots and other green goodness. It’s absolutely delicious and suited to our tastes, and a bargain at only $4 AUD.

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For our last stop, we sit down at a stall where the owner smiles and nods at us, and doesn’t even bother asking us what we wanted, or how much we wanted. She simply ladles out a cup of hot pork broth each to start, and then starts rolling gimbap for us, one after another. Her gimbap is incredibly simple with just some pickles in it, but when dipped in the hot sauce she provides, becomes something special with the crispy seaweed and bite of sesame seeds. She loves seeing us eating it, and even rolls some special gimbap for us, and pops it directly into our mouths. What service!

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We meet up with my friend Tara, who takes us for a simple meal near Noksapyeong that includes the revelation of Maggi 2 minute noodles cooked with Tteokbokki in a spicy kimchi stew. Oh. My. God. Such a simple concept – but such delicious comfort food! We finish by grabbing churros nearby for a sweet dessert.

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You don’t visit the border between North and South Korea without taking a selfie right? Seriously though, it was a very surreal experience. As the two countries are still technically in a state of war, the level of military presence and the number of security checks and rules we had to abide by was actually quite alarming. It’s a really unique experience, especially when you get the added excitement of a tour group from North Korea arriving at the border at the same time as you do, and you end up looking at each other but not being able to communicate.

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Our DMZ tour also included lunch, where we shared a pot of beef bulgogi – simple but delicious!

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You don’t walk around Myeongdong at night without picking up some strange snacks. Who would have thought to curl a potato around a hotdog, then batter and deep fry it? It sounds strange, but it’s strangely more-ish! Just try not to count the kilojoules…

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“What exactly does hof mean?” I asked K when we arrived in Seoul. It seemed like every couple of bars we walked past had “hof” printed on their signage. “It’s like a bar that serves mainly beer and fried chicken” he said. For days we kept walking past all the hof bars, until we finally went to one in Myeongdong for a drink and a meal. It was well worth the wait – the chicken was both crispy on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth tender on the inside. The chicken was just as good when coated in a sweet chilli BBQ sauce. It definitely looks like you can count on Hof bars for good nibblies while you’re having a few drinks!

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Despite the ridiculous amount of food that we ate at every single meal that we had in Korea, I was always on the look for yummy sweets for dessert afterwards! I found these crostoli-like balls of fried dough, smothered in a layer of hardened glazed icing, from a street stand in Myeongdong. We bought one of the strawberry coated ones, and the lady put it in a paper bag, smashed it with a rolling pin, then handed it to us. Yum, little bits of icing covered fried dough are the BEST!

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Again out for a sweet fix when out in Sinsa-dong in the Gangnam region of Seoul, we dropped in La Pomme Dessert & Furniture Cafe. To be honest, the reason was two-fold. I wanted dessert, and as an industrial designer by trade, K is always interested in checking out new designs. I ordered Crepes Suzette thinking that I would get the usual simple crepe with citrus sauce on top. Imagine my surprise when this work of art came out! The crepe was wrapped around a deliciously fluffy citrus tinged meringue which just melted in my mouth. Combined with the two lemon meringue macarons, it was a wonderful sweet and refreshing dessert.

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K ordered a Tarte Tatin, which came out as a full tower of crispy cream-filled pastry, poached apples and creamy vanilla bean ice-cream. Again, not what you would normally expect of a tarte tatin – but it all worked really well. Topped off with a crispy apple slice, this dessert just had everything going for it! The only thing I would say is that if you were to visit this dessert cafe, you can probably skip your next meal as the servings are very generous!

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One of the final meals was with my friend Chantelle, who took us to the university area of Hongdae at night for a meal. Walking past young street buskers, numerous street stalls, restaurants and karaoke (!!) joints, we went to a little home-style restaurant where we ordered a platter of delicious fried food! From various vegetable fritters to fried frankfurts, it was a real demonstration of the variety of fried foods you could eat in Korea.

And now we come to end of our eating journey overseas! It was an amazing three weeks of eating in Hong Kong, China and Seoul – a much-needed holiday from the Real World of employment, bills and adult responsibilities!

April 2014: Eating in Seoul #1

After a week in Hong Kong and another week in China, both with a long series of family catchups and various obligations, K and I really needed a proper holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my family and all their foibles and quirks. However, there’s only so many times that I can handle my older relatives giving me flack about my weight (I’m really trying okay?! I’m already 15kg down!), or the fact that I don’t work at a better paying job. Sometimes, money isn’t all there is to life.

I really needed to take some time just for the two of us doing what we like best – exploring new places and trying new things to eat. Given that I’d never been to Korea before, and that the last time K went, he spent 90% of his time playing video games in his friend’s apartment (19-year-old boys…), we decided that we would spend a week in Seoul before flying back to Sydney and the Real World of Not Holidays.

This is going to be Part One of Two of our eating adventures in Seoul…we just ate so much!

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The very first meal that we had after checking into our Airbnb apartment in Seoul was at a cute “Art Cafe” downstairs from our apartment, directly opposite Seoul Station. The cafe specialised in both selling the various pieces of art nouveau paintings that decorated the walls, and offering coffee brewed in various ways – from French presses to percolators. Their food menu was small but satisfying – after two weeks of relatively heavy meals, it was nice just to have a simple grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a pickle on the side.

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Our apartment was in very close walking distance of LOTTE Mart and LOTTE Outlets as well. One of my favourite things to do in a new country is to walk through supermarkets and simply see what they have on offer, and LOTTE Mart simply blew my mind! We start with bowls and bowls of different types of kimchi and pickles on display that you can buy by weight.

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And given that ginseng is a major export item for Korea, of course you’ll find some in the supermarket.

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Just in case you get tired and hungry in the middle of your shopping trip, you can always order some food from a machine, and then sit down and wait for it to be delivered to you. Nothing like having a second lunch while you do your grocery shopping!

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But actually…why would you bother having a second lunch, when there’s staff at the end of every aisle cooking samples for you to try? From sampling different instant noodle brands, to cereals, yoghurts, dumplings, and more, you could quite easily have a full meal just by trying a bit at every single stop.

Other things I loved in the supermarket that I didn’t take photos of:

  1. An entire fridge section dedicated to potential hot pot ingredients. Simply pick and choose what you want and buy based on weight!
  2. The buckets and buckets of fried chicken available in the deli section. I had to refrain from buying a bucket of a dozen pieces and taking it home for a midnight snack!
  3. The pizza stall in the middle of the supermarket – just order your pizza and they’ll make it fresh in front of you!

What I didn’t love – the number of Chinese tourists buying up everything they could in LOTTE Mart. The recent explosion in popularity of Korean TV dramas in Hong Kong and China means that a lot of people (mainly women) in the key demographics of 20-45 book “girls trips” to Seoul where they go on guided tours of TV drama filming locations, and then spend literally hundreds or thousands of dollars in buying cartloads of Korean snacks which they then ship back to Hong Kong. There’s actually a shipping counter located outside of LOTTE Mart, where you can box everything you buy up, and mail it off straight away.

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The language barrier really worried me before we left for Seoul. I’ve never been in a country where I couldn’t speak at least a few common phrases in the language of the country (I speak English, Cantonese, Mandarin, a smattering of French, and enough phrases in Spanish and Vietnamese to get by!), but Korean has never been a language I’ve learned to speak…other than “Anyong haseyo!”. The language issues reared its ugly head on the very first night that we were in Korea and in a tiny family-run restaurant with no English menus. Referring at pictures on the wall, we decided to order what looked like a octopus and vegetable hotpot.

Looking back, we should have known something was wrong when the owner kept asking us something in Korean, and continually pointing at the picture. Completely confused, we just kept nodding and saying “yes, yes”. Well. When the dish came out, it was clearly meant for four or more people and there was also the questionable addition of lots of beef tripe…yes, it was an octopus and tripe hotpot. Not quite what I was envisioning for our first proper meal in Seoul! At least we managed to finish most of the dish which impressed the owners to no end – they must have thought that we had bottomless appetites!

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After a less than inspiring first dinner of octopus and tripe hotpot, we needed something sweet and dependable to sweeten our evenings. Enter, snacks bought from LOTTE Mart! We honestly thought this haul would last us for the week, but we found ourselves going back every two nights to buy and try something new…with the range of candy, chocolates and treats available, we just couldn’t stop ourselves from wanting to try more and more!

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Street food is literally the best reason for travelling within Asia. We visited the tourist-y district of Insadong which is rife with antique stores, art galleries and market stalls with lots of food! We tried this fried pastry ($1 AUD) from a stall run by two middle-aged ladies who had a real system going and a long line of patient customers. Filled with a sweet peanut and sesame paste that went gooey post-frying, it was both sweet and savoury, and utterly satisfying.

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Given I’m still in a stage of having no alcohol, these street-side cocktails weren’t terribly enticing. A younger and infinitely less sensible version of myself would love the concept of just buying alcohol drinks from a random guy on the street before 12pm though!

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As we walked along the main street of Insadong, I saw a number of people walking past holding a curiously shaped cone. Being eternally green-eyed with jealousy of what others are eating, I was determined to have one. This is actually a soft-serve cone, and the special thing is that you can actually choose two different flavours because of the curious double-ended shape. I chose a traditional vanilla and chocolate, but they do have more adventurous flavours as well if you’re game!

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I’m incredibly juvenile – a red bean pastry shaped like a Japanese-style cartoon poo really tickled my funny bone!

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My first bibimbap in Seoul! I actually found this a lot plainer than some of the versions I’ve had here in Sydney in terms of the fact that it didn’t really use too many different sauces or spices and really relied on the freshness and inherent flavours of the various ingredients to make the dish complete. It just goes to show – freshness and the best ingredients really negate the need for fancy sauces and flavourings!

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At the Namdaemun markets, there are about a million shops, 50% of which display advanced specimens of ginseng to draw in the tourists. Ginseng really doesn’t interest me from a culinary perspective – what did interest me though, was the fact that these reminded me of the Mandrakes from the Harry Potter movies!

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Namdaemun markets was a mix of established stallholders selling cheap clothing and undergarments, to old ladies selling fresh produce, and other stalls doing fried foods and noodles on demand. I wasn’t in the mood for fried food that night though.

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What I was in the mood for was sushi! As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m a real sushi lover, and have sushi at least once a week to satiate my craving. Having not had sushi in Hong Kong or China, I really needed some sushi to satisfy me and keep me going. I found my sushi set (with a mini-udon bowl) extremely satisfying and fresh – just what I needed!

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This isn’t a very exciting photo, but it is an accurate depiction of some of my preferred eating habits when I’m on holiday. When you’re going out for your meals, sometimes all you want is a simple start to the morning that’s a little lighter in kilojoules and marginally healthier too! A bowl of cereal makes all the difference in starting your day right. You couldn’t really do this regularly in a hotel room though – our Airbnb apartment was equipped with a kitchenette so we had a lot more options. We could have made toasties!

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So I’ve mentioned that I love supermarkets in other countries – have I ever talked about how I love convenience stores as well? Sometimes you just need a quick drink after exploring a neighborhood for a few hours – the “Denmark Milk” products caught my eye for their beautiful packaging with gorgeous works of art.

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Convenience stores are also great for snacks on the go – especially if you’re after SPICED HAM onigiri! I really like the convenience store culture in Korea as well – almost all of them are stocked with a row of microwaves where people can buy frozen meals and heat them up immediately in store. Can you imagine how much healthier our population could be if people went into 7/11, bought and heated up a Lean Cuisine meal, instead of popping into McDonald’s for a Big Mac?

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I absolutely fell in love with Brickpop which I found when walking around the large Times Square shopping mall. Since I’ve been trying to move to a no/low-dairy diet, the most challenging part I’ve found has been desserts. Out of every ten desserts available, only one would be dairy-free. You can imagine my excitement then, when I found these dairy-free, 100% fruit popsicles. I may have had three in a single afternoon…going back continually to get my next fix!

Stay tuned for Part Two of our Seoul eating adventures!