Words and photos by Sean D’Angelo
“Modern Korean cuisine” is a term you hear brandished a lot in restaurants up in Seoul, but at its heart, it contains an inherent contradiction. While “modern” refers to European-inspired, deconstructive techniques and presentations that cast off the yoke of traditional preparation, Korean cuisine shines precisely because it adheres to centuries of refinement. It is like kimchi: well-aged and so unique that it does not pair easily. That is why Korean innovators have such a difficult time replicating the movement that has swept across the western world. As the old saying goes, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” While many chefs are content to continue the process of slowly fermenting Korean culinary culture, a select handful are taking the brave leap to try to shatter the proverbial mold, which, in the case of this particular metaphor, must be a kimchi pot. One such visionary has landed in downtown Gwangju, over at The HaDa, an affordable, modern, Korean restaurant inspired by traditional hanjeongsik, or “full-course Korean dinner.”
The HaDa’s brazen challenge to tradition is apparent in its pop art interior and shameless, self-aggrandizing atmosphere. Imagine the entire Jinju lantern festival stuffed into a New Orleans smoking lounge, and you will get the idea. Almost every available surface is tagged with The HaDa’s geometric logo, and a sign above the bathroom mirror reads “Welcome to the best day of your life” in blazing neon. While amusing, the decoration commits the sin of raising expectations beyond anything humanly possible. To their credit, the chefs make a whole-hearted effort to deliver, and if nothing else, your experience at The HaDa will be unique.
Featured set menus are designed around seasonally available ingredients to ensure quality and include odd dishes like crunchy cucumber bean-paste soup, sea snail aglio e olio, and black sesame porridge with strawberry jam. Not all the flavor profiles match, but every dish gets points for creativity. Fortunately, the set menus change every three months, so if fermented chili cream vongole does not sound appetizing, just wait a while and you can expect something different next time you visit. The HaDa also offers lunch set menus perfect for a trial run if you are just curious what the chef is cooking up. If you decide to go with a set menu, lunch will cost you 13,000 won per person and dinner just a little bit more at 15,000 won.
A la carte items like pasta, fondue, and steak are also available year-round, including The HaDa’s most famous dish, mille feuille nabe: a layered hot pot stew of thinly sliced cabbage, steak, tofu, and mushrooms similar to shabu shabu. Nothing on the menu costs more than 25,000 won, so you will not break the bank in one evening by any means. For refreshments, The HaDa offers a couple of wines by the glass or by the bottle, a small list of beers, makgeolli, soju, and a selection of homemade sparkling ades with flavors like cinnamon apple, cranberry lime, and lemon.
While The HaDa does push the boundaries of tradition, it will not completely blow your mind. The kimchi pot is cracked, not really broken, and it will take a titanic effort to finish the job. Perhaps future menus will really let the bull loose, as it were. For the present, its real target could be said to be folks who are unversed in Korean cooking and want an easy gateway experience with subtler flavors. In that sense, it would be a good place to take visiting relatives with weaker palates, or friends who just want a cool place to take some selfies. For the price, you really are getting quite the bargain.
광주광역시 동구 제봉로110번길
Jaebong-ro 110-beongil 7, Dong-gu, Gwangju
Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 am–3:30 pm Lunch, 5–9:30 pm Dinner. Closed Monday.
Online at: facebook.com/thehada062 or instagram.com/thehada_official