Cold War Cuisine's Incongruous Outpost

Can a solid North Korean restaurant, formerly within sprinting distance of the communist country's embassy in Beijing, make it in the bright lights and skyscrapers of the city's flashy commercial center?

Until recently, the Silver Bank Pyongyang Restaurant was the place to go for a fusty, Cold War culinary experience. With a menu alternating between delicacies like abalone, and homespun favorites like hand-ground porridge, located in a wood-paneled, metal-tabled dining hall and served by smiling North Korean waitresses, it had all the charm of the pleasantly incongruous. But last month, the restaurant decided to move a few kilometers to the southeast to the Central Business District, and it is now perched on the second floor of a building called the China Garments Mansion. "We're going for a more high-class experience," said the restaurant's Chinese translator.

But while the service staff is the same and the food equally fantastic, though pricier, some of the charm got lost in the shift. The new Silver Bank has no main dining hall. Rather, the entire restaurant consists entirely of 20 private rooms, some seating as many as 40 people. But without a central space, sightings of North Korean diplomats cautiously picking at their noodles are rarer. The new private rooms feel silent and eerie, no matter how loudly we talk. The leather chairs seem like the type often found in pricey Beijing developments named after European capital cities. Like the old restaurant, a karaoke screen saver played silently on the TV panel in the wall, cycling through images of Korea: grand arches, surging waterfalls, pristine forests. A painting in a golden frame dominated an entire side of one wall. In it, giant crags, lapped by waves, rose majestically out of the ocean. It was an impressive painting, one that reminded me of the 18th century American flag, featuring a coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike, with the words: "DONT TREAD ON ME" (sic), but it scared me.

The old Silver Bank had a particular fondness for a simpler version of the rural. One table consisted entirely of a tree trunk. The old restaurant's facade had the incongruous atmosphere of a wooden hut dug into the side of a mountain. The upstairs featured ornamental wooden shutters that unfortunately opened onto a brick wall. And visitors could enjoy a before-dinner stroll around the tree-lined embassy and look at pictures of Kim Jong Il inspecting a factory that produces chickens. The exquisite food only seemed to complement these little traces of absurdity.

The grilled duck struck the perfect balance of fatty and tender, and rolled in lettuce and garnished with a slice of garlic it hit the right mixture of crispy, oily, and pungent. Each ingredient, from the stone pot rice to the stir-fried Korean mushrooms, was fresh.

Meat and seafood featured heavily, partly because seafood offers a healthy markup (lobster and clam dishes cost hundreds of yuan), and partly because meat is a delicacy in North Korea. On my trip to the country, we were told that North Koreans couldn't understand vegetarians, "because why would people give up the most expensive luxury that they, as Koreans, could afford?"

As in other desperately poor countries, the elite eat well while the poor subsist. The most common response I receive when I invite people to dine with me at Silver Bank is "They have food in North Korea?" And I say yes, because if they didn't have food they'd all be dead, though some had, of course, succumbed to that very problem.

{mospagebreak}

Now the old Silver Bank location is a Chinese hotpot joint. I asked the hostess what happened, and she demurred. "Come eat here!" she said. I asked her if it went bankrupt. "Yes, bankrupt," she laughed, and told me again to eat at her restaurant. I called the North Korean embassy and spoke with a diplomat. After a laborious initial conversation punctuated by sighs and grunts, he relaxed considerably when he realized I was only asking about Silver Bank. When it was around the corner, he would go often, and he even chuckled at the memory.

Silver Bank is not the only North Korean restaurant near the embassy. Haedanghwa (a type of rose) is a well-lit space located across the street from a Taoist temple. "The scale is bigger," said the diplomat. "And the girls, they sing, and they dance..." he chuckled again.

Haedanghwa still receives a steady flow of North Korean businessmen and Chinese locals. Its main room, like Silver Bank, is decorated without any reference to politics. The Kims have even been banished from people's lapels. But Haedonghwa, with its limp noodles, sad tofu and sterile dining room, lacks the hearty feel of Silver Bank.

There are more than a hundred overseas North Korean restaurants in East Asia, mostly in China. While South Korea sports kitschy North Korean restaurants opened by defectors, many of the overseas North Korean restaurants are government-run and regarded as a way to earn precious foreign currency.

Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam all have North Korean restaurants. Opened in 2002, "Pyongyang," in Cambodia, is probably the first government run restaurant opened in a non-Communist country. Cambodia and North Korea have had strong ties ever since Kim Il Sung offered asylum and a palace to a fleeing King Sihanouk. The manager of the Cambodian branch of the International Tae-Kwon Do federation owns the restaurant, though no information is available about who owns the restaurants in Beijing.

Unlike any other 'ethnic' restaurant I have been to in Beijing, all of the waitresses are from the home country. They're thought to be graduates of top universities in Pyongyang, and to have paid substantial bribes to get this job. All of the waitresses are graceful, beautiful, and attentive.

It's not an easy job. One waitress said that she gets two days off a month, and during her days off she is not allowed to be alone outside of the compound. Smiles grace all of their faces, though they will frown and mutter "I'm not too clear on that," if asked any question that could be construed as sensitive. They don't seem to mind Americans -- we were all treated with the same courtesy that cruise ship employees bestow on their guests. However, I did once invite a Mandarin-speaking black friend to dine with me, and the waitress could only stand there motionless, gaping at him.

North Korean luminaries and businessmen frequented the restaurant, though I never saw anyone senior enough to visit by himself: North Koreans travel in groups, partly to keep an eye on their companions. On a few occasions we would be graced with visits by North Korean national sports teams. I inquired about what I assumed were a group of high school students, but the waitress replied that was in fact the national ping pong team, and most players were in their twenties.

One alcohol-fueled night two years ago a friend and I spotted four North Korean businessmen in the room next door. We bought them bottle after bottle of some of the best soju this side of the DMZ, and joined them for karaoke. While they couldn't speak English, they did know how to sing.

"My Heart Will Go On," we all sang, swaying. Then they sang that independent anthem, "My Way."