There’s a lovely Japanese restaurant in Seoul that I miss a lot and wish I could visit again once the pandemic is over. It’s called Otsu Seiromushi located in Songpagu district, in the southeastern part of South Korea’s capital.
I sought it out with my friends more than a year ago, not so much for the traditional Japanese cuisine it serves but because it is owned by the older brother of Kim Seok Jin, 1/7 of the ultra-popular South Korean band, Bangtan Sonyeondan, more popularly known around the world as BTS.
I fell deep into the Bangtan rabbit hole in June 2019, almost the same time as my good friend, Camille.
In October that same year, BTS had the finale of their Love Yourself, Speak Yourself world tour in Seoul. Camille and I wanted to watch the concert so much that our earnestness must have touched the heart of the divine that we managed to get hard-to-score tickets.
Otsu Seiromushi was part of our first ever BTS pilgrimage. A “pilgrimage” is a practice among fans of Korean celebrities or shows, of visiting as many places as they could associated with their favorite artists, groups, or dramas. Fans can have a pilgrimage anywhere in the world—a filming site in the States, a museum in Paris an idol visited —but often, we start in South Korea.
Camille and I planned meticulously our pilgrimage and hours of research led us to Otsu Seiromushi. It opened in April 2018 and news reports said Jin was a director of the restaurant and his brother was the owner. We decided we would have dinner there the night before BTS’ last concert day. Nobody warned us that all BTS-related places would be packed with local and international fans if you do a pilgrimage in the middle of concert week.
For several days, a line of ARMY—the collective name of BTS fans—snaked around the Gangnam neighborhood where a pop-up store of Bangtan merchandise called House of BTS was located.
With Camille’s two young children—Chloe and Connor—and ate Jenny in tow, we arrived at Otsu Seiromushi shortly after 6pm. But a sign on the door said the restaurant was full for the night and they could no longer accept more diners. Those milling outside the restaurant were the ones already on the waitlist. They were obviously ARMY, judging by the House of BTS and Line Friends/BT21 shopping bags they carried, the official BTS Love Yourself sweaters they wore, and whatever items they had on them that featured RM, Jin, Suga, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook.
As I stood by the main door, reading the sign, a tall Korean man approached from inside of the restaurant and slowly, apologetically, shook his head to say: “No more guests for tonight.” I wondered if he was Kim Seok Jung, restaurant owner and Jin’s older brother.
Chloe, Connor, and ate Jenny, with two dejected grown-up fans, walked around the area to find another place to have dinner. We ended up in a cozy Korean restaurant not far from Otsu Seiromushi where the owner taught Chloe, then 7, the right way to eat her Korean meal of meat and rice (using chopsticks, he gently placed the meat on Chloe’s spoon then topped it with rice).
I was able to go back to Otsu Seiromushi a week after our first attempt. Camille, the kids, and ate Jenny had already flown back home, as well as the legion of other international ARMY who watched the three-day concert finale.
I went with my newfound Filipino ARMY friends, Lai and Kel. It was early evening when we got to Otsu Seiromushi, at the corner of two intersecting streets. The quaint traditional Japanese façade gave a warm welcome to guests who wanted to have a relaxing time.
In contrast to the crowd that waited outside the restaurant just a week ago, there was only a handful of diners this time, some of whom were foreign fans like us with their Korean friends whom we heard talk about Bangtan in English. Our little group of three excited ARMYs devoted the rest of the night to the place, wishing of course, by some stroke of luck, BTS would saunter into the restaurant.
While the dream wasn’t meant to be, my friends and I still had an unforgettable meal.
We dug in and had a taste of the most tender pork and beef and the sweetest vegetables
It was my first time to experience seiro-mushi, the Japanese art of steam cooking using bamboo trays. One tray was filled with pork and beef and the other had a variety of vegetables. Each table had a built-in stove where the bamboo trays were stacked on top of one another for the steaming process. While waiting for our meal, we looked around the restaurant for tell-tale signs of BTS.
We didn’t see any Bangtan-related stuff, but we spotted a flying Iron Man wobbling toy on a shelf, along with frames of DC and Marvel superheroes. ARMYs saw Iron Man figures in Jin’s room in his VCR in the 2017 BTS DNA Comeback show. Could that display at Otsu Seirosmushi be Jin’s?
After about 15 minutes, the waitress returned to our table and removed the trays from the stove and opened them. The meat and vegetables looked delicious and they were perfectly cooked! We dug in and had a taste of the most tender pork and beef and the sweetest vegetables. The sauces and the banchan (Korean side dishes) added extra kick to the main dish.
The basic seiro-mushi tray itself cost 59,000 won (approx. P2,600) but we paid more than that owing to our bowls of rice and soda. Overall, it was a reasonably priced excellent Japanese dinner because the tray itself was good, at most, for four.
I’ve always liked the clean and minimalist Japanese design philosophy and Otsu Seiromushi showcased just that. The restaurant was simple and elegant. There were tastefully chosen decorative plants and the doors to the private rooms blended seamlessly with the walls.
The restaurant had subdued lighting, its layout divided into small booths to give diners the privacy, allowing them to enjoy their meal over a nice conversation. A couple of paintings livened up the walls.
I stepped out of the restaurant not just an ARMY but a fan of Otsu Seiromushi and its awesome food as well. It is a must-try for anyone visiting Seoul.
Recently, on his personal IG account, Kim Seok Jung posted about Otsu Seiromushi, along with mouth-watering photos of the steamed dishes it serves. He wrote a long note in Hangeul.
Loosely translated, Kim Seok Jung said he has refrained from promoting Otsu Seiromushi on his personal IG (the restaurant has its own Instagram account) but he’s doing it now because running the store has not been easy due to the pandemic. He invited people to come and dine in the restaurant, assuring them that strict health and safety protocols are being followed. He said the restaurant was divided into booths which was ideal in today’s situation. (A few weeks later, Kim Seok Jung had another IG post, grateful to those who dined in the restaurant. “It’s not enough to share what I have yet, but I’ve gained the strength to hold on,” he wrote—based on an online translation—as he offered store promos.)
Since December 2020, South Korea has been dealing with a third wave of the Covid pandemic, prompting the government to impose more stringent physical distancing measures and prohibiting private gatherings of five and more people, affecting all sectors anew, including businesses like Otsu Seiromushi. South Korean officials said last January that the country might have passed the peak of the third wave but they remain cautious nonetheless.
Camille and Kel told me that Laundry Pizza, the pizza parlor where BTS shot photos for their Love Yourself: Her version E album, and &Gather café, where the boys tried their hand at being baristas on Episode 45 of Run BTS!, seemed to have closed shop last year.
It’s sad to read posts like Kim Seok Jung’s because once again, we are reminded that each one’s struggles are real and deeply personal—and we’re so far from waking up from this global nightmare.
Jin himself opened up about the difficulties his older brother was going through as entrepreneur in the time of Covid
On the popular MBC Radio Bae Cheol Soo’s Music Camp (BCSMC) program in September last year, Jin himself opened up about the difficulties his older brother was going through as entrepreneur in the time of Covid. Jin said that he himself has been worried and that he and his brother have been talking regularly about the business situation. His brother, Jin said, had to sell his car to keep the restaurant afloat.
BTS may be one of the world’s biggest and most successful musical acts but they also have the same concerns and worries that we have. At the end of the day, they are sons and brothers who have families to think about and care for.
We can only wonder about the Kim brothers’ strategies and plans to save Otsu Seiromushi. We wouldn’t be surprised if an astute business sense runs in the family. Fans have regarded Jin as the one with business-savvy among the seven BTS members. In jest, ARMY has coined “Jin Hit Entertainment,” the “successor to Big Hit.”
We’re rooting for Kim Seok Jung and Otsu Seiromushi. We’re quite certain that long after the pandemic, every ARMY on a BTS pilgrimage will get to experience seiro-mushi in a quaint little restaurant with a flying Iron Man figure on the shelf, in the heart of Songpagu.
— pha⁷ (@bemyjinnie) February 24, 2021
Restaurant photos by Nikko Dizon