Finding Happiness and Warmth at New Seoul

Finding Happiness and Warmth at New Seoul
The beef bibimbop takeout from New Seoul Korean Restaurant.

New Seoul, one of Madison’s most authentic Korean restaurants, formerly of 2503 University Ave., has not closed and is in fact very much alive and well in a new and sunny location on Madison’s far west side.

Located on the corner of Old Sauk and High Point, the end cap to a row of stores anchored by the Alicia Ashman Library, New Seoul recently replaced Asia Express, the Chinese fast-food restaurant.

I stopped in this week for take-out and to talk with the owners—and perhaps Madison’s most charming couple—David Lim and Jung Sun Jo. Natives of South Korea, they came to Madison four years ago, and Lim got to work right away apprenticing for his friend and original owner of New Seoul Korea Restaurant. Lim and Sun Jo shine in this new space, cooking and serving the same delicious and traditional Korean food customers had been enjoying at the Old University location for more than a quarter of a century.

I arrive at 11 a.m., right at opening, and I am already in line behind three other customers. Lim and I speak in the cozy dining room, at one of the wooden tables set with crisp white paper placemats and napkins. The room is painted a cheerful shade of yellow, with accents of bright orange, green and white. It is as if the goal was to make the room look like happiness itself.

Lim explains that colors representing nature are very important in Korean culture, with white symbolizing purity, cleanliness and long life. The color red was non-existent in Korean dishes until around the eighteenth century, when the first red pepper was imported.

Spicy and garlicky aromas begin to warm the room and I am getting hungry for the beef bibimbop, one of the more popular dishes on the menu. Lim says this dish makes your body feel warm, and that after I try it I will know what he means. Since I’m feeling a little rundown, I ask Lim what he eats when he isn’t feeling well. He tells me about two of his all-time comfort foods: Korean miso, which he explains is made with beans that ferment for three to four years and is therefore very strong, and kimchi. 

New Seoul’s kimchi is made fresh and takes one week to prepare. Sun Jo, in charge of preparing this homemade accompaniment, gives me a quick lesson: Fresh Napa cabbage is chopped and placed in a pot with salt to soften for thee to four hours. After a good rinse, the cabbage is combined with minced garlic and ginger, chopped onion, chili pepper and a little sugar. All is left to ferment, or, as Sun Jo says, “to let nature do its work.”

Back at home, before I even taste the beef bibimbop, I am struck by the bright colors of the fresh spinach and carrots, the radiant white of the radish and earthy hue of the bean sprouts all alongside browned strips of beef tucked beneath an over-easy egg. Kimchi and white rice round out the meal, along with a fiery-looking sauce (which was delicious, sweet with a kick at the end). The colors of nature are all present, working together to indeed give my body the warmth it so needs on a chilly December day.

New Seoul Korean Restaurant, 721 N. High Point Rd., 608-829-3331