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SEOUL — A friend from back home calls and says he’s coming to South Korea for a visit. Where do you take him to get a taste of the country’s usually meat-heavy cuisine — especially if he eats meat and you don’t?

Try Sanchon, a vegetarian restaurant that serves Buddhist temple food and is as Korean as you can get.

The restaurant, tucked down a narrow alley in touristy Insadong, is a Seoul institution that stands out in an area of the city packed with traditional Korean restaurants. It has plenty of atmosphere, with its Korean antiques, brightly colored lotus lanterns, and traditional floor seating, although there are Western-style tables and chairs available.

Sanchon, whose name means "mountain village," is run by a former Buddhist monk who serves naturally seasoned food with no chemical additives. The restaurant got a favorable review in The New York Times 22 years ago, as you can see by a reprint on the menu and an enlarged copy posted inside the entrance.

But would my steak-loving friends like the restaurant as much as that long-ago New York Times reviewer? I recently took a visiting American friend and two expats living in Seoul — all confirmed meat eaters — to Sanchon.

Our meal started with tea, porridge and a tart water kimchi that’s more of a soup than the traditional cabbage kimchi. Then came the rest of the meal — nearly 20 bowls of veggie dishes, including tofu, vegetable fritters, crunchy lotus root, deep-fried veggies, greens prepared in different sauces, and the standard spicy red kimchi, followed by mildly sweet rice cakes for dessert.

The food is less spicy than most Korean food, and it got rave reviews from my panel of carnivore critics — for the meal and the ambiance.

"It’s a great place to take a date," one said.

The soybean stew was the hands-down favorite. The only thing we didn’t like was a tasteless mixture of greens and something white that we guessed was tofu.

Dinner is expensive — about $40. As a bonus, the restaurant has a traditional dancing show that lasts about 45 minutes on Fridays and Saturdays.

Sanchon, Seoul

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. The last seating is at 8 p.m.

Prices: Dinner is 39,600 won, and lunch is 22,000 won. Specialty teas and alcohol are extra.

Specialties: Vegetarian Buddhist temple food

English menu: The restaurant has a set menu of about 20 dishes, but provides a menu explaining what they are.

Dress: Nice but not too dressy.

Clientele: Tourists, Koreans and vegetarians. Reservations are recommended on weekends.

Location: About halfway down the main shopping street in Insadong, look for the sign pointing you down one of the many alleys to the restaurant.

Web site:www.sanchon.com. (Korean only) Call 02-735-0312 to make reservations.


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