Written and photographed by Justin Ramsay
Since moving to Gwangju almost five years ago, I have noticed a definite boom in the number of foreign food restaurants, with many young people growing up in the age of globalization and social media. This has led to more open-minded attitudes and more of a willingness to embrace other cultures, specifically foreign cuisine. Korean food is great, but as the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life,” and most people, especially foreign residents, are incredibly thankful for the wider array of dining options that are becoming available in our city. We now have the option of eating food from India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Spain, Greece, and France, among others. This month’s featured restaurant is a lovely little Italian restaurant called Contua.
There has never been a shortage of pizza available in Korea during my time here; however, most of these offerings are from large franchises and are very mass-produced and “Koreanized” with toppings such as sweet potato, bulgogi, and corn. Spaghetti, too, is widely available at many cafeteria-style restaurants and can be found on many menus, but this too is often bland and tastes like a packaged microwave meal. Restaurants that specialize in Italian cuisine are few and far between, so when I found out about this place in Jisan-dong, I was very excited to give it a try.
Jisan-dong is located right behind Dongmyeong-dong, and Contua is on the main road leading up to the courthouse. The restaurant was quite easy to find as it had a clear sign and a green door and shutters. From outside, Contua resembles a boutique that one might find when walking through the streets of Europe. The black chalkboard menu along with a bicycle with curved handles and shopping basket parked outside definitely gives the place a European look. The lace curtains that are visible in the windows give the front of the restaurant a certain charm and very welcoming look.
Upon stepping inside, one immediately notices the simple but stylish wooden tables and chairs, which are painted white and compliment well the wall and tile color of the interior. Subtle lighting, sparsely placed wall decorations, and elegant placemats help to create a pleasant, comfortable dining space. The two staff at the restaurant greeted my wife and I with friendly smiles as we took our seats and started to look through the menu.
The menu was just a couple of pieces of paper on a wooden clipboard. The chef explained that the menu is seasonal, and there are often changes made depending on the availability and freshness of ingredients. He wants to always use the best fresh ingredients to give diners quality food. Also worth mentioning is that the menu has Italian names for the dishes with explanations in Korean, but a quick look at Google translate will solve this problem if you don’t know either of these languages. The menu that we looked at had two starters: baked eggplant and bruschetta. The menu also had a selection of about ten pasta dishes including beef lasagna, carbonara, mushroom, rose, bolognaise, seafood, and Italian cheese with spicy black pepper. The two pizzas on the menu were gorgonzola and margarita. Rounding off the food menu was medallions of pork steak with red onion and parmesan. On the last page, there was a small drinks menu with a selection of wines, beers, and sodas.
We ordered the eggplant, two-cheese spaghetti with black pepper, margarita pizza, and pork steak. It only took around ten minutes for the first dish to arrive, which was the eggplant. This starter came on a long, rectangular plate with the eggplant cut in half, baked, and topped with tomato sauce, baby salad, and parmesan cheese. It was perfectly sized for sharing. All the ingredients tasted very fresh, and the eggplant had been cooked for just the right amount of time. The tomato sauce was tasty, without too much acidity, and the baby salad and sprinkling of parmesan cheese added just the right amount of flavor and texture to the dish.
Next to arrive was the spaghetti and pizza. The spaghetti was not the most interesting dish I have ever seen, but the flavor made up for it – which is the most important thing. The pasta was creamy with granules of fresh, strong hard cheese and a generous dusting of parmesan cheese on top, creating a look almost like snow. The spaghetti was not overcooked and the flavor of the strong cheese and black pepper was very well balanced. Prior to being served, we saw the chef rolling the dough and preparing the pizza through the large, open area between the dining area and the kitchen, which I enjoyed as I could see where my food was coming from and that it is all freshly prepared. The pizza arrived on a thick wooden board and had an imperfectly shaped, homemade look rather than a typical, perfectly round pizza which you get at all the franchises. The crust was one of the best crusts I have eaten in a long time. It was perfectly crunchy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside. The pizza had a good cheese-to-tomato ratio, and it was an absolute pleasure to eat.
Finally, my favorite dish among those I tried was the pork steak. This dish was a little pricy at 17,000 won, but it was absolutely delicious. The presentation on the plate was very good with four, evenly sized, pork steak medallions on a bed of baby salad and topped with crisscrossing strips of red onion. On the side was a stroke of white, tangy sauce and a dollop of whole mustard. The meat itself was perfectly cooked, seasoned all the way through, and very tender. This dish was also very easy to share as there was no need to cut up a large piece of meat because it came in the form of medallions.
I enjoyed my meal at Contua and am eager to try the other dishes on the menu. If you’re in the mood for some Italian food or just want some nice pork that isn’t samgyeopsal, then I recommend giving Contua a try.
Address: 광주 동구 동명로 98
98 Dongmyeong-ro, Dong-gu, Gwangju
Operating Hours: 11:30–21:30 (Closed for break: 15:00–17:00)
Price Range: 10,000–20,000 won
Justin is an English teacher from South Africa who has lived in Gwangju since 2013. He is a big fan of food and the arts, and generally goes where something good can be eaten, seen, or heard. He is often involved in GPP performances and writes monthly food articles for the Gwangju News. In his free time, he’s usually playing board games, video games, or just enjoying a nice stroll around Gwangju.