North Korea is probably not in the holiday plans of even the most hardened traveller, but there is a taste of the secretive state to be found in Dubai.
Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan restaurant is part of a chain of North Korean restaurants that also has branches in Nepal, Thailand and China.
Tucked away Deira Clocktower in a bare business park, it’s a taste of North Korean capital Pyongyang for those of us who will never get there.
When we arrive in the late afternoon, staff are rehearsing for the evening shows, twirling their flowing robes and strumming instruments. These performances have gained almost an urban legend status, but yes, they do happen and very popular they are too.
The vastly kitsch dining room is quiet, but we’re told it fills up later for the performances, which blend karaoke with carefully choreographed routines and vintage pop. Paintings of flowers and mountains line the walls, while a TV loops North Korean heroics against scenic backgrounds.
Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan’s menu will be familiar to fans of South Korean food, but for newbies, the AED 38 lunch sets are a good introduction to cuisine north of the border.
We start with their equivalent of ‘banchan’ – complimentary small plates of peanuts, preserved egg, pickled cucumber and potato salad. Dishes we’ve ordered arrive as soon as they’re ready, so our amuse bouches are quickly joined by a large bowl of white radish kimchi (AED 25), which isn’t as spicy as its fermented cabbage cousin.
For the brave, we recommend trying yukhoe (AED 45) – seasoned raw beef topped with an uncooked egg. Basically Korea’s take on steak tartare, it’s fresh and spicy. Slices of what tastes like pear adds a touch of sweetness.
Preferred your food cooked? Mixed rice with five kinds of herbs (AED 60) is a close cousin to bibimbap. Our giggling waitress mixes it our table with a golden egg and gochujang red chilli sauce. She’s pretty much the seasoning to our experience, chiding us gentle for taking pictures and sassily inquiring as to how we can use the sleek metal chopsticks.
Beef again for our main course – Okryu-Gwan is definitely a tough gig for vegetarians – this time served on hot stones and with mushrooms and spring onions (AED 100). The thin but flavoursome mushrooms grow on the mountain depicted behind the stage, our waitress tells us. Her English is pretty good, and we certainly don’t have any major language struggles on our visit.
With a large bottle of water (that’s the strongest beverage you can enjoy here), our meal comes to less than AED 250.