What’s eating Pyongyang?

A week ago, we decided to head over to Pyongyang Restaurant in South Jakarta. I took a fast ride on Adam’s “pretty Vespa,” clinging to a metal handlebar under his seat as people looked at me and probably thought, “Oh look, Indonesian prostitute on the back of a White guy’s bike.”

Pyongyang is quite nondescript, and you might actually miss it if you pass by the street. Perhaps it’s the North Korean way of just standing silently in grim isolation, watching as the world either seeks it out or ignores it.

The NK government actually set up a chain of these restaurants in Southeast Asian countries, all branches named after the country’s capital, to draw in foreign currency. This is why the place is probably spruced up to look like a socialist wonderland.

The place was packed with Korean-looking people, probably drawn by the food, which was actually pretty good. The boys got a table a few feet from an empty stage right beside the entrance. Our view of it, however, was partially obscured by a glass panel bordered by fake green foliage dotted with fake orange blossoms.

Upstairs, there are private dining rooms equipped with karaoke machines that guests can rent. But these are quite creepy. If you loiter long enough, you can catch some of the servers disappearing behind a locked door into what I imagine are their dorm rooms.

Surprisingly beautiful North Korean waitresses would flit about, serving dishes and taking dirty ones away with their delicate white hands. I always imagined North Korean girls as toothless, hairless labor camp prisoners. But these ladies, wearing the traditional Choson-ot dress, were heartbreakingly pretty, having to evade flirtatious customers (and there are plenty) with their small smiles.

They are graduates of North Korean hospitality schools, where they presumably learn the fine art of opening beer bottles and folding canary yellow napkins into complicated cabbage shapes.

Our server, covertly photographed because cameras aren’t allowed inside. But loads of people get away with it.
The things you learn in hospitality school.

The dishes were kind of pricey, but totally worth it when you’re famished. An interesting item on the menu is dog meat soup, which we considered ordering, but we decided that we would feel bad if we did.

I must say, after eating copious amounts of Indonesian food and fast food fare, I was glad to eat fresh, straightforward Korean dishes like kimchi, cream dumplings, chicken pockets and roast beef wrapped in lettuce leaves and rolled in bean paste.

A hefty bowl of cold noodles in a tangy broth that I thought tasted a bit funky. I didn’t like it so much.

At some point in the evening, the waitresses went on the said stage to perform a few Korean karaoke songs. Helpfully, there were flatscreen TVs on some of the walls, showing the lyrics. At one point, a hostess sang Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” in a voice that eerily echoed the groans of people dying on the Titanic.

One song involved shaking the hands of people in the audience, and the boys and I got the chance to actually touch a North Korean. Unfortunately for them, that was as far as they were going to get, and we wondered how indoctrinated these girls were to resist the pull of a cosmopolitan city like Jakarta.

There have been reports of Pyongyang restaurant waitresses defecting, but we figured the government had ways to keep them in check, and perhaps that they or their relatives would be punished if they so much as stepped out of the restaurant compound.

A blurry picture of the waitresses singing like dying cats.
A migraine-inducing video of the handshaking song. I was a bit nervous, sorry. To note, they shook the hands of Andy Janes, Dave Watnick (“They’re all ones!” as opposed to zeroes on the binary scale of female hotness), Dan Powell, Adam Martin and myself.
I sincerely hope they are happy pacing about efficiently in their beige pumps all day, maybe knocking back a few shotglasses of Soju to ease the stress of waitressing for the socialist cause and fattening up Kim Jong-il’s already bloated pockets.
Memo to me: Soju does not agree with me.

Save for a nifty nook beside the doors, where a woman sold North Korean ginseng and various herbal products, there were no overt references to North Korea or its ideology. In fact, the decor was quite bland, with motel-standard landscape paintings– no pictures of the beloved leader or propaganda leaflets.

It’s actually quite amusing how the country has come up with such an elaborate ruse, allowing its subjects to make nice with “the enemy” (read: Americans, of which there were many in our party).

As a diner, you also question whether you would feel okay with spending money that would support the North Korean regime. The irony that many poor North Koreans die from starvation and poverty every year, while state-owned establishments like this serve food in abundance was not lost on me.  Maybe our Rp 1.8 million bill would foot Kim’s hospital bills, how did we feel about that?

But hey, if anything, it was a delicious, interesting and thought-provoking experience. It actually encourages me to take a packaged tour to the real Pyongyang soon. Hopefully. (My dream came true!)

ADDRESS: Jl. Gandaria 58, Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta

Open daily 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.


2 thoughts on “What’s eating Pyongyang?

  1. I'm not sure if my earlier message went through. Anyway, good to run into a fellow UP Journ. My wife and I will be taking some guests out to the same place. She might even cover it for her news agency, CNN. Another friend, Ed Wray, did a similar cover of the place. Interesting restaurant indeed. Too bad my friend Tasha recently resigned from your company. Anyway, cheers and enjoy Jakarta!

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