The Swedish word “sköll” is used when making a toast. It’s also an easy name for folks speaking various different languages across various different cultures to remember for a gastropub looking to draw an international audience.
SKÖLL, in the heart of Busan’s Seomyeon downtown area, has a lot going for it right from the start. Members of this family-owned establishment that opened in November have spent considerable stretches of time outside of South Korea, including in London and the New York City suburbs, which is definitely not a guarantee of knowledge of what may or may not appeal to a cross-cultural audience. But, the Hong family seems to have put their international time to good use.
With a name that is used as a toast, one would hope there’s more to drink than just Korean macro beers and, for international flair, Budweiser, Heineken or Guinness. SKÖLL does not disappoint.
The number and breadth of draft beer options here are staggering. No Cass, Hite or OB are to be found. If you’re really craving those, head downstairs to the galbi restaurant, where I’m sure your wish will be granted. At SKÖLL, about 30 taps are employed with four separate temperature-controlled levels (from 2 degrees C. to 12 degrees C, depending on the brew). Options include cost-conscious (for craft beer in Korea) selections from Korean brewers such as Busan’s Wild Wave Brewing, Trevier and Whasoo, as well as a very reasonably priced contract-brewed house brand line up featuring pilsner, hefeweizen, IPA and stout; mid-priced and increasingly-familiar (for craft beer aficionados in Korea) selections from Brewdog, Goose Island and Brooklyn Brewery; and “treat yo’ self” but be sure you’ve got enough money in your bank account to do so options such as North Coast’s Old Rasputin and the 15,000 won per glass flavor bomb from Founders, the Backwoods Bastard.
If you’re feeling particularly flush, there are also wines available by the bottle and limited bottled beer options that start at 8,000 won and go as high as 95,000 won. Hey, big spender.
All of these delectable beers are enjoyed in what is honestly one of the prettiest restaurants I have visited in South Korea. Noori Hong, the face of the business, said her family tried to bring a European aesthetic that has perhaps been tried here before, but to varying levels of success. I would say they succeeded.
“It is good that craft beer is developing in Korea,” she said. “It’s the reason we can build this. It’s because of them (the craft brewers in Korea and those interested in trying them). More and more Koreans are becoming aware of craft beer.”
SKÖLL has also succeeded in putting their money where their name is. In South Korea, too often it seems English words in businesses are used simply as window dressing, to present customers with a sense of international cool. Thankfully, the “gastropub” in their name is not just for show, as every food item on the menu offers drink pairing recommendations for those who want their “gastros” and their “pubs” to truly come together. Ms. Hong noted that she has personally tasted every single beer available at the restaurant.
Stepping away from alcohol for a moment, what we ate the other night here was decent. We did not try the delectably-photographed two-day smoked ribs (32,000 won) or the brisket (29,000) in their proper form, but we did order a Cobb Salad (15,000 won) that featured chunks of the brisket, which was tasty and paired well with a (not a menu recommendation, I just wanted to drink it) Stone Brewing pale ale (12,000 won). We also ordered a 10,000 won veggie stick platter and a very tasty cheddar cream burger (13,000 won), which competed valiantly for command of our taste buds with the aforementioned Backwoods Bastard (15,000 won, which is actually cheaper than what we’ve seen at other tap houses in Korea).
Coming back to that burger, however, one finds what I would consider the only real hiccup in our debut SKÖLL experience. Maybe it might be a small deal for some, but it always seems petty to me when a dining establishment makes french fries an up-charge item. They shouldn’t be. You don’t need to crowd the plate with them, but at least some should be there, especially when a burger is 13,000 won (or, in the case of the chili burger, 16,000 won). Currently at SKÖLL, however, a small addition of fries is 3,000 won. Why is that? Did they crunch the numbers and decide they absolutely needed to not include them with a burger? Or, do South Koreans, obviously SKÖLL’s main customer base, not care so much about fried potatoes and the gastropub is just trying to avoid wasted food? That seems unlikely.
Perhaps it’s a small thing, but perception is important. So are value-added incentives. Come for the burger and fries, stay for several pints of beer, maybe an appetizer or two. Come for a burger without fries, pay 3,000 won for them and get a small handful of potatoes, feel a little ripped off and ultimately spend less than you would have if they had just included the fries in the first place. Perception matters.
(Side note: Currently, as of this posting, SKÖLL is open for lunch at 11:30 a.m. and has a burger (with fries!) special for 10,000 won. That is definitely some good value.)
But, the proof of value in a place is in its pours (at least, when it comes to Craft Beer Asia), and the pours available at SKÖLL are extensive and inviting.
One final gripe (and I would say this is a big bigger than even my french fry bugaboo), is what is as of this writing a somewhat inconsistent pour from the business’s current bartenders. Apparently Koreans like foam on their beers. Ms. Hong said as much and I’ve heard it elsewhere. And, fine, I get that it makes a beer look pretty. And, I don’t mind some foam. But, some does not mean 1/3 of a 12,000 won glass of Stone.
I don’t even like it in a considerably-cheaper (12,000 won for a flight, 5,500-6,000 won a full glass) SKÖLL house beer. I came for beer, not beer-flavored bubbles.
But, SKÖLL is still young, very young. So is the craft beer movement in South Korea. And, I have been consistently happy to see pours throughout this country’s movement getting better and better, so I am optimistic this, too, will improve.
Overall, I remain optimistic about SKÖLL. The sheer size of the project–from the drinks selection to the structure–is massive. The Hong family has certainly undertaken an ambitious endeavor that hopefully will continue to improve and not, as many other ambitious endeavors of the past have done, drop off in quality when it becomes apparent their initial ambitions went far beyond their means. I hope this does not follow that unfortunate path and that they can cultivate a large community of loyal customers from both Korea and abroad. I certainly hope I will consider myself part of that community.
Hours: 11:30a-12p Mon-Thu; ~ 2a Fri-Sat’ ~ 10p Sun.