Dislocation. It’s what we all want when we visit a restaurant where the food represents a far-flung location. Tiki bars. Sushi counters. Hookah dens. We all want the experience of being far away without having to go much of anywhere. You’re still ineffibly here but with enough convincing aspects of there.
Agak-Agak provides a strong dose of dislocation. Opened by Malaysian chef, Basira Yeusuff, in June of this year, the flavors are uncompromised, and a sense of (faraway) place is sparked by vibrant artwork commissioned from Malaysian artists. Yeusuff herself has experience running restaurants, food-based community initiatives, and a catering business in Kuala Lumpur in addition to a stint at Michellin-starred Soigne in Seorae Maeul. For more about how Agak-Agak came to Seoul and Yeuseff herself, go here
The restaurant is located on a corner in a sleepier-than-you’d-expect pocket of Donggyo-dong, neither Yeonnam Park nor Hongdae proper. Agak-Agak shares a connected space with a barbershop (don’t mistake its door for the bathroom like I did) and a wine bar called The Bad Journal, from whence your alcohol will come (if you want it). Tables are separated between an area adjacent the open kitchen and a more enclosed backroom.
The interior is somewhat the du-jour industrial chic but mediated by the aforementioned large format colorful artwork and a sense of being in a currently-being-remodeled older house. Industrial chic can make a place feel under-dressed and unwelcoming. Agak-Agak escapes that trap by injecting a sense of place and/or what is at least personality. The music was pitched just right in terms of mood and volume, something like Spotify’s urban hipster Pollen playlist. At one point, we stopped to notice a Childish Gambino song, crooning, soulful and detached, but the music mostly remained in the ether of our dining experience (the liminal zone on the edge of your attention where music should remain in a restaurant).
Like the atmosphere, the menu is well-calibrated. Three main dishes, a couple “drinking foods”, and some interesting small plates. No fat, no fuss. We went straight for the roti canai (15k) and nyonya laksa (11k). The roti canai arrived first. Three dense disks of fried flatbread with textures you’ll want to immediately text someone about if only your fingers were not so greasy and constantly in motion, tearing, dipping, being licked clean. The accompanying chicken curry was rich and punchy and the dal covered in a sheen of funky fermented (shrimp?) oil. Altogether, no punches pulled. No deference to the dreaded (and self-defeating assumption of) *Korean taste*. My dining partner, JY, kept trying to offer me lovingly coiled spoonfuls of laksa noodles, but I couldn’t be distracted, like a lion at a wildebeast corpse, while tearing away at the texturally engrossing roti. Soft, chewy, crunchy, crispy addictiveness.
Laksa, nyonya-style, was similar to the Singaporean curry laksa I’d had on brief work trips there, but far funkier thanks to the inclusion of cockles, soft fishcakes, and the aforementioned funky oil. The fried tofu skins were my favorite inclusion, a willing carrier of all that spice and twang from the soup. It was a surprisingly large bowl, inviting you to dive in with all your senses. The noodles’ texture was soft but not totally yielding, still with a nice chew to them. However, I feel like there could have been more volume of them based on the large amount of broths left in the bowl. Still, a mammoth and challenging bowl.
We ordered two karipaps at first but had promptly forgotten about them due to being overwhelmed by our mains. They arrived as a savory dessert, the dense, luscious pastry filled with curry yellowed potatoes. One aspect of Malaysian food that’s not apparent is the presence of bread and pastry – the roti and pastry here and the addictive milky white bread toast with kaya or soft-boiled egg from hawker markets. For most more casual diners, Asian cuisine equals rice and noodles, but due to Malaysia’s crossroads of cultures, we end up blessed with the bready, doughy bliss of these foods.
Agak-Agak is the sort of place you walk away from thinking “everything was in its right place”. A full stomach. A stimulated tongue. Relaxed shoulders. It’s run by an experienced chef, someone who knows what she is doing, and it shows through in every aspect of the dining experience. I hope that more restaurants can take this tact of being truly themselves and that diners, ever more educated due to their travel or more open-minded from their desire to travel, can accept the rightful intent and nature of particular foods. We’re lucky in the sense that Malaysia has come to us.