Here’s my bid at a semblance of being an actual travel blog*: by raving about a restaurant you should visit if you ever find yourself in Jeju.
This, my friends, is Donato’s.
(Photo credit: Frances)
My friend and I were scouring around for a place to eat lunch after the famous black pig place we were recommended turned out to be closed. Since my friend has food allergies and I don’t, I left her to find us something. Considering that she can’t eat gluten, landing on this pizza restaurant is either an act of God or an act of sheer crazy.
It takes a bit of time (and a phone call to the owner) for us to find Donato’s but it was instantly a welcoming experience. The interior has that lived in, post-industrial look that was ubiquitous in Seoul. It was warm. (Which is important for winter!) They were playing Joe Hisaishi‘s music from all those Miyazaki movies and we knew then that we were somewhere special.
The owner, Jiye Nam, was as warm and comfortable as his restaurant. We put in our orders and as he and his wife set about putting our meal together, he found the time to tell us a bit of his life story. He studied and worked in London’s fashion industry before going to culinary school. He trained in a kitchen in Maine (among other places?) before settling in Jeju to offer the island gourmet pizzas. He and his wife plan to take a course in sausage making so that they can offer that on their menus in time for the summer.
Then it was time for the food.
Pizzas are an interesting experience in Korea. You can get a tolerable pepperoni pizza from just about anyone, or you can get the pizzas that have gone native with potatoes and corn for toppings and pickles for sides. We’ve been lucky in Ulsan to have Grappas in Kkotbawi which gives us excellent brick oven pizzas. Donato’s does the same for Jeju.
I’m going to compare Donato’s and Grappas for a bit, but the bottom line on both is that they are delicious and the best pizzas on the Korean peninsula. Given the opportunity to patronize both, do it. They are some good distance apart, there’s no need for competition here.
Grappas has a bigger menu and perhaps a blunter approach to the pizza: you can get a prosciutto pizza which is essentially bread, sauce, cheese and piles of prosciutto, no added frills. It is an addictive thing of beauty that will lure you into Grappas for days in a row, no joke. My friends have done it. But at the end of the day, it is just bread, sauce, cheese, and heaps of meat.
(Photo credit: Frances)
We got the pizza at the bottom of the menu that was simply called Donato’s and had a variety of toppings that I can’t remember now. It arrived in a beautiful arrangement on a wooden tray and Jiye Nam taught us to dip the crusts in the (locally produced) honey or balsamic vinegar.
We also ordered a salad. Usually, I hate salads but this was just right with a good mix of fresh vegetables, chicken and a subtle dressing. Most dressings tend to drown salads, as if to apologize for its attempt to be a healthy meal. But this dressing really got into the trenches and worked with the vegetables, complementing them to make a complete meal.
That meal was pure joy in my mouth. I found myself slowing down, needing to savor every bite.
As if the meal wasn’t enough, Jiye Nam helped us find places in Jeju to visit. He brought out a map and a magazine and together with my artistically inclined friend walked through the various sights of the island, with detours for more beauty off the beaten path. I sat back and enjoyed their little meeting of souls.
There was the food, the music and the atmosphere, but our experience at Donato’s that day was something more. It was one of those moments in life that makes you think, ah yes, this is why I’m alive. This is why I am a soul dressed in a body wandering this planet.
And a restaurant with people who can evoke that are beyond priceless.
[This post was originally published on February 4, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]