▲ Shara’s Garden offers fresh-from-the-garden food and homemade beverages in a comfortable and cozy setting. Photo by Tracie Barrett
One of the things I miss the most about my adopted hometown of Dunedin, New Zealand, is my friends’ organic farm on the Otago Peninsula. With views out to sea and seals and yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) virtually in the backyard, it is one of the most relaxing places I know. Add to that the wide expanse of garden growing a variety of organic vegetables and herbs and you have an experience that is literally grounding. There is nothing better than a salad of ingredients so fresh from the soil that they haven’t yet realized they’re no longer growing.
I have now found a similar refuge on Jeju Island, complete with an organic restaurant, and plan to return there as often as possible. Shara’s Garden, in the village of Sunheul, was opened by owner and designer Shin Young less than a year ago, and will celebrate its first anniversary on May 1. Shin, who goes by the English name of Monica, was born in the United States to Korean parents and the family returned to Seoul while she was still young. Monica (diners quickly become friends on a first-name basis) was educated in America, where she became a cosmetologist, and has been living at Sunheul for nine years, in a house she designed herself.
Monica said she first became interested in organic food after she became very sick and the doctors she visited, first Korean and U.S. and then Chinese practitioners of Oriental medicine, were unable to tell her why. She read and studied many books and decided her problems were food-related so she quit her job and started working on her own health instead.
▲ Photo by Tracie Barrett
“Every morning I walked and worked in the garden,” she said, “and found out that if the dirt is live, you are alive, but if the dirt is dead, you will be dead.”
It is a lesson she obviously learned well as this bright, vivacious woman looks nowhere near old enough to be the mother of a 30-something daughter - the Shara for who the restaurant is named. Like its owner, the restaurant building is a pleasant surprise, a stucco-finished building nestled among the surrounding farmland with rear windows that overlook a field planted in rape plants and other edible treats. The interior has two divisions, one nearer the kitchen that feels more traditional with medicine chest furniture and a private room with an excess of comfortable cushions, and a more modern glass and pale wood interior next door. A curved wooden stairwell leads to Monica’s private quarters above.
My friend Darryl and I began with coffee to warm us after our motorcycle ride to the restaurant, then sampled one of Monica’s “fermentations,” each of which is designed to alleviate particular health problems. I chose the Chinese bellflower root, which helps with breathing disorders. She then brought bowls of home-made soup, which I had smelled cooking the moment I opened the door on arrival. The recipe changes regularly (Jeju Weekly’s publisher loves the pumpkin variety) and this day we had a creamy vegetable soup, which was so good I finished the last few spoonfuls of Darryl’s when he stepped outside to take an important phone call.
We followed this with a salad that Monica calls Miss Jeju, most of the ingredients of which we’d just watched her pick from the garden behind the restaurant. A colorful combination of different lettuce and endive varieties with brassica leaves and topped with rape flowers, the salad was a fitting base for tender chicken slices and Monica’s piquant home-made dressing. Darryl said it was easily the best salad he had tasted since coming here more than a year ago.
▲ Photo by Tracie Barrett
We followed this with La Polo Loco, or crazy chicken - a fusion Italian/Korean mix of chicken in a slightly spicy Italian style sauce served on angel hair pasta with ddeok, or rice cake noodles. As with everything on the menu, the dish has a story, and part of the pleasure is hearing Monica relate the tale of each item.
We sipped her home-made rasp-berry wine to accompany our feast while chatting, as best we could with no shared language, with a three-generational Korean family dining in the room next door. (Good food, good intentions, open smiles and contented tummies go a long way to enabling friendly communication.) We were the only two tables dining on the Monday lunchtime when we visited, but Monica laughingly told us she doesn’t like to be too busy anyway. For that reason, she recommends that diners book rather than just show up, and she doesn’t mind being relatively hard to find.
Once you do find your way to Shara’s Garden, I’m sure that you will want to return, as do Darryl and I. The fresh flavors, warm welcome and friendly, fascinating hostess make this truly feel a home away from home.
Shara’s Garden 3976 Sunheul-ri, Jocheon-eup, Jeju City Tel: 070-7773-9631
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