Friday, April 20, 2012

Soseonjae (Seoul)

April 2012

113-3 Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Tel: +82 (2) 730 7002

Soseonjae is a restaurant which name we had come across in the planning of our Seoul trip. It was described as one specializing in Korean home-style traditional dining and had a particular focus on fresh vegetables grown in the chef's backyard or something like that. However, when we were in Seoul, we totally forgot about it and didn't make any effort trying to look for it.

It was then to our surprise that, on the Sunday morning when we made a trip to the touristy and picturesque Bukchon area (where you'd find traditional Korean houses of the royalty of the past and the rich of today), we walked past this restaurant, thought the exterior looked interesting, took a closer look and realised that this was initially one of the restaurants we were intending to eat at. This was a recurring theme during our trip to Seoul. We could never find the places we were looking for but when we stopped looking for it, we almost always stumbled upon it accidentally (such is the complex nature of their address system). For those looking for this restaurant, forget about the address; this restaurant is directly across the road from the Korea Institute of Banking along Samcheong-dong.

The main road leading to the Bukchon area, Samcheong-dong, starts at main palace complex and goes uphill in a narrow 2-way street. Along the street are old and new shops and restaurants. In addition to the traditional eateries, there has been a recent sprouting of hip and interesting cafes and restaurants, making Samchong-dong a popular tourist destination with the locals and foreigners alike. We were there in the morning on a Sunday, when it was still relatively quiet and peaceful, however, after noon, the crowd started coming in and the roads were jam-packed.

Having stumbled upon Soseonjae, we didn't have a reservation but fortunately they were able to seat us on condition that we vacate the table within an hour as they had a booking then. Eating a lot of food in a very short time is kind of a specialty of ours. The interior decor was very wood-dominated and looked very traditionally Korean. The tables and benches were austere and it had the feel of a traditional country inn as opposed to a fine dining restaurant. The service was warm and homely and the food was served at a very brisk pace (possibly in part because they needed us out of there within the hour). We didn't make it easy for ourselves by ordering the recommended 'Rosette Course' (probably the largest set menu), which was ambitious given that we had just finished having waffles (for breakfast) at a cafe next door.

From most accounts, Soseonjae is supposed to be a vegetarian restaurant (even the name of the restaurant means 'vegetarian restaurant' or something like that). However, meat forms a large part of their menu as well, although the restaurant generally keeps to its home-cooked and healthy theme with food which didn't taste too oily or overly salty.

First up was a soup/porridge to start us off.

The sliced duck and salad was very good (in particular the mustard dressing).

We liked the Korean omelette, in particular the one cooked with the vegetables.

Cold glass noodle with squid was savoury and quite delicious.

The sweet potato was served with dates and a honey-based sauce.

This looked like boiled pork. On its own it was quite dry and ordinary, but when wrapped in the leaf and picked cabbage, the flavours were accentuated.

Spicy and picked vegetables, a very Korean dish.

Our favourite dish was the beef patty and grilled mushrooms. Cooked to perfection.

We felt that the grilled cod-fish was overcooked and was dry and hard. We didn't manage to finish it.

Fortunately we were coming to the end of our meal with the clear soup with black fungus.

Red rice with an assortment of kimchi and other side dishes were served as fillers in case we weren't yet stuffed (we were).

Dessert was sweet pear and a kind of barley drink served in a bowl.

Final Thoughts: In all, an enjoyable and reasonably priced meal in a casual and relaxed setting. The food was quite simple yet tasty and made with quality ingredients. There were English menus and the chef/proprietor spoke a little English which was helpful.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Jungsik (Seoul)

April 2012

649-7 Sinsa-Dong, Gangnam-Gu, Seoul, Korea
Tel: +82 (2) 517 4654

Said to be one of the newer and hippest dining destinations in Seoul, Jungsik brands itself as a modern Korean restaurant serving Korean food prepared with European cooking techniques. It is named after the chef himself, Jungsik Yim, who trained at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and worked at several New York restaurants before returning to his roots in Korea and opening this restaurant. Ironically, we did not know about this place until we read a review about his second restaurant which he opened in New York, in one of food blogs we follow (Donuts4Dinner). That writeup had marvelous pictures of the food there and a raving review of the meal, so it was a no-brainer that we were to try the original Jungsik while we were in Seoul.

Located in the hip and grungy yet high-end district of Sinsa-Dong just off the Rodeo Drive of Seoul, Apgujeong-dong, it is situated on the third floor of a low rise industrial building with no signs on the outside. In Korea, knowing the road names and unit numbers could be useless unless you know how to decipher them, and it's best to get the taxi driver to put in the address into his GPS to ensure that you get there after all. Suffice to say, even after we were dropped off in front of it, we had to walk around to ask the locals for directions as we didn't know which building this was in.

The interior was quite simple and sat a relatively small number of people (perhaps 30-40 persons) with a few small private dining areas. Its menu concept was not unlike that of Eleven Madison Park in New York, whereby aside from the usual tasting menu, there was also a design tasting menu. Of the five courses of Appetiser, Rice/Noodle, Main, Main and Dessert, you get to choose one of four or five choices from each category. Unlike Eleven Madison Park though, which asks what you would like to eat and what you prefer not to have for each dish (leaving some element of creativity from the chef to prepare something somewhat customized to your tastes), there is no such choice for the dishes you pick at Jungsik.

The amuse bouche was a very impressive start to the meal, both visually and gastronomically. The first was a glass bowl of smoked salmon in yoghurt and korean pickles, which was very nicely balanced.

Then the millefeuille with foie gras cream, which was stunning. The pastry in particular was baked with the high standard expected of a pastry chef trained in the French tradition.

The bulgogi mini burger was a reminder of the Korean roots of this restaurant, although the memorable part of this burger was not the beef (which was very good nonetheless), but the burger bun which was very airy yet firm.

Finally, a spoon full of solidified chicken soup with some croutons and chives, an attempt at molecular gastronomy. This one wasn't that special.

They had a decent enough wine list for a Korean restaurant, although the mark ups were high. We picked out a Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru which turned out to be a very good wine and paired well with our food.

Despite amuse bouche being served, they were to serve another starter dish before they commenced our meal. It was the mung bean jelly with crustacean clear soup, which was very good.

Jungsikdang Mushroom - Poached Egg, Dashi Sauce, Parmesan Chip, Kimchi: We both had the same starter (always a sucker for poached egg). It was a very good dish.

Spicy Kalguksu - Korean Green Pepper, Cream, Clams, Korean Style Noodle: This was quite nice (not spicy enough in my wife's view) but we couldn't help but think that the same noodle by the street side might taste better and more authentic.

Herbal Sujebi - Hand Picked Noodle, Spicy Parsley Clam Broth: My dish was similarly colored (the green was from the basil) and the clam broth was quite nice, but with flat squarish noodle instead. But similar to my wife's noodle dish it didn't seem to belong to a menu of such high-end food.

Pomfret - Sujebi, Korean Radish, Boiled in Spiced Soy Sauce: This was my wife's first meat dish. It was good if not particularly special.

Octopus - Doenjang Sauce, Fried Potato, Korean Herb: This was my first meat dish. It was absolutely delicious. The octopus was grilled to perfection and this reminded me of a similar dish we had at Marea in New York recently (no faint praise for Jungsik, indeed).

Five Senses Pork Belly - Spicy, Crunchy, Sour, Soft and Sweet: This was Jungsik's signature dish (with the goat's cheese foam) and it was every bit as good as was advertised.

Crispy Duck - Duck Breast, Pear Puree, Dried Fig: I was being adventurous in ordering the duck breast. This is usually very risky as only the top restaurants can cook duck breast perfectly without causing it to be too overcooked and chewy. Suffice to say, I was very happy with my dish, and sauce in particular, was something I'd expect in a top French restaurant.

Pre-dessert was a very nice strawberry and yoghurt base and passionfruit and pineapple foam.

Fall in the Chocolate - 72% Dark Chocolate, Korean Angelica Root Ice Cream, Cinnamon Sable: The chocolate fondant was immaculately baked and the herby ice cream and sable crumble were good accompaniments.

Jang Dok - 40% Milk Chocolate Mousse, Chestnut and Jujube Cake, Sugar Straw: Visual pretty dessert (looking like 2 eggs in a bird's nest), this tasted as good as it looked. All in all, we were very impressed with both the desserts.

We were then served coffee and tea and I opted for an interesting Korean herbal tea from one of the leaves in the large test tubes presented to us.

Petit four was a selection of Korean desserts prepared in a western manner and was a great end to the meal.

Final Thoughts: This was a superb meal prepared by a very talented kitchen. Service was also excellent and all the staff members spoke English well (rare in Seoul). Aside from the 2 noodle dishes, the other dishes wouldn't look out of place in the menu of a Michelin star French restaurant. Ironically, though Jungsik professes to be a modern Korean restaurant, if the same food (other than the noodles of course) were served in a restaurant like Astrance or Pierre Gagnaire or any of the other famous French restaurants, this could easily be deemed to be modern European with a Korean touch, such is the classical European techniques employed for the meal.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Pierre Gagnaire à Seoul (Seoul)

April 2012

Lotte Hotel Seoul, 1 Sogong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea
Tel: +82 (0)2 771 1000

It was the most curious thing to find a French fine dining restaurant like Pierre Gagnaire in Seoul, where we had the impression that European fine dining hasn't really caught on. Our last visit to a supposedly top high end modern restaurant in Seoul which was mentioned by the San Pellegrino World's Best 100 Restaurants of the World website, Elbon the Table, though decent enough, was underwhelming if compared against the best restaurants in Asia.

In addition to that, our rather poor experience at Pierre in Hong Kong, despite the fact that Pierre Gagnaire was there himself that night, made us cautious about setting our expectations too high. There also seemed a lack of any good reviews on the web about the Seoul Pierre Gagnaire, so we 'bravely' took the plunge into the 'unknown' to see if there was any good reason why no one seems to be talking about this restaurant.

Like the Hong Kong one, Pierre Gagnaire Seoul is located on the top floor of a luxury hotel with great views over the city. The Lotte Hotel sits at the heart of the bustling Myeongdong area of Central Seoul, and the restaurant can be found on the 35th floor of the new wing of the hotel. Andy Hayler (a prominent food blogger) has written that the higher up the restaurant is, the lower the food quality tends to be. We hoped that this would prove an exception to that saying.

Interestingly, in Seoul apparently people have dinner relatively early, and guests are encouraged to start dinner between 6-7pm with last orders at 9.30pm. Our initial reservation was at 8.30pm but after we learnt of this practice when we got to Seoul, we changed our reservation to 7pm instead. We are generally quite used to eating late (when we were in New York for our previous trip, some of our dinners started past 10pm!) and in Seoul we had to adjust our entire eating schedule to accommodate an early dinner (which meant earlier lunches and less late afternoon snacks!).

When we got there, the restaurant was empty with only one other table occupied. We were very warmly welcomed by the restaurant staff and led to our table, which was a large window-facing one; easily the best seat in the house. The views overlooking the city were spectacular and the interior of the restaurant was no less stunning; gold colored walls and ceilings with glittering chandeliers gave a sense of opulent luxury. The staff consisted of English-speaking Koreans with one French maitre d' and service throughout the night was flawless. The wine list was not very impressive though, it lacked depth and the markup was quite high. I picked out one of the cheapest wines on the list, a Vosne Romanee Premier Cru (which was still rather expensive) and it was decent enough to accompany our dinner.

One feature of our experience here was that the food came out at a very brisk pace (which we like), although this could be influenced by the fact that there were only 3 tables throughout the night (unusual for a Friday night, we would have thought). Barely seconds after we sat down, the many amuse bouche and canapés were served. These included things like savoury cream puffs, beetroot tarts, puff pastry with deep fried scallop, peanut ball and spanish ham.

We thought the long metal spoon on which the spanish ham was served looked familiar. It was similar to the one serving the popcorn at Andre. The amuse bouche, together with the large glass of champagne we were served (the Bollinger Brut), were lovely.

The bread was quite accomplished, especially the sliced English muffin and the brioche.

It seemed that the Pierre Gagnaire style (we haven't been to the flagship Paris one though), was to serve multiple dishes at one go for each course, and this was a theme consistent throughout the evening. Unlike some chefs who may have 2 or 3 different things on one plate, in Pierre Gagnaire, each item will appear on different plates (usually 3) which when taken together is supposed to form one course. Although this means that the chef is not constrained by space (which would otherwise be the case if everything needs to fit on one plate), it results in our table feeling quite cluttered and it is quite messy eating from 3 plates at the same time. The question arises whether you finish one plate, and switch the empty plate with the next one or adjust your body to eat at each plate without moving them. All too complicated and inelegant for a fine dining experience. To give an example, the next 3 dishes were served all together on relatively medium to large plates/bowls next to each other. Fortunately we had a large table.

Bang oe corolla coated with sesame paste: This was a very exquisitely prepared raw fish carpaccio with an interesting sesame sauce and crunchy raw leaves which looked like they were frozen.

Crab meat, smoked adji, celeriac remoulade with turmeric: Nicely put together, with the smoked mackerel adding a savoury touch to the otherwise sweetness of the crab meat. The hint of turmeric brought an Asian flavour to the dish.

Scallops with Korean beer mariniere: Not our favourite dish. The scallops lacked punch and the beer sauce, though with an interesting frothy texture, didn't create enough flavour for the otherwise bland scallops.

Thin slices of lobster seized in a nut-brown butter, baby carrots with golden celery glazed in apple cider, nutmeg cauliflower cream: A wonderful dish. Vegetables cooked in a delightful cider sauce, with a perfectly butter-poached lobster and an interesting cauliflower cream which at first glance looked like a dollop of oatmeal.

Coral cauliflower sommites: To carry on the cauliflower theme, a smaller plate accompanied the lobster dish, containing some sauced cauliflower on a thin crepe.

Tandoori veal sweetbread, melted endive, pineapple and confit lemon, thin slice of date: The sweetbread was tender and delicious, and the tandoori flavour, though apparent, did not overpower the dish. The lemon confit served to temper some of the gamey taste of the sweetbread. A very good main course.

Poached wild sea bream in oven, crispy avocado, Seoul condiment: Perfectly poached sea bream with the right firm texture yet not overcooked. The 'Seoul condiment' was a bed of Korean vegetables and sauces which went very well with the fish. The tempura avocado was also an interesting addition. This was our favourite dish of the evening.

Grilled beef fillet, wrapped in black pepper, split peas veloute, baby spinach: A close second for the best dish of the evening. The beef was tender and juicy, with a rich pepper and red wine jus redux and a subtle pea veloute beneath it.

Julien's potatoes (marrowbone, snails): Accompanying the beef was a side dish of snails and bone marrow sauce (hidden in the photo under the thinly sliced potatoes) which was worthy of being a standalone course.

Carpaccio / shaved Mimolette: The third accompanying dish to the beef was the thinly sliced beef carpaccio and interesting shaved Mimolette cheese. It was a good idea, but somehow the shaved Mimolette didn't really taste any different from any ordinary parmesan.

Gruyere cubes, coconut milk yogurt, white chocolate pearls: Instead of the traditional cheese board being brought out, we were instead presented with a trio of cheese creations. The first was a very interesting glass bowl of gruyere cheese cubes and white chocolate bits, a curious combination which worked.

Camembert mousseline, sable biscuit topped with omiza jam: The second was also very good. The camembert mousse was light and airy, and was subtly matched by the sweet sable biscuit.

Bleu d'Auvergne terrine, litchi; clementine orange syrup: The third cheese, the blue cheese with orange syrup was a bit of a disappointment as the syrup was unbearably sour, especially bringing out the natural acidity of the blue cheese. There wasn't enough litchi (or lychee) on it to counter the sourness with sweetness.

Desserts were named simply as 'Pierre Gagnaire's Desserts', about which we were apprehensive because of our disappointment with the similarly named desserts at Pierre in Hong Kong. However, our fears were unfounded this time because the series of desserts this time was excellent. Once again a trio of dishes were served at the same time, starting with the green tea and pistachio macaroon.

The second was the poached pear with raspberry sauce.

And rounded off with the refreshing yet exotic ginseng ice cream with cookie crumble.

Next was a standalone dessert of pineapple and meringue.

And the final and grand dessert was the melted chocolate cake. It was originally a piece of chocolate cake with a square of chocolate over it. The waiter poured some hot chocolate sauce over it which melted the square of chocolate over the cake.

Petit four was accompanied by a herbal tea with an after-dinner mint floating in it (quite an interesting concept).

Final Thoughts: This was a thoroughly enjoyable dinner with most of the dishes of a very high standard. Many of the dishes were very clever and managed to incorporate local ingredients and tastes. Service was impeccable as well and we could enjoy the views overlooking Seoul from our table. From our experiences alone, we thought that this was so much better than the Hong Kong Pierre (even though you could argue that the Hong Kong one has better views, i.e. overlooking the harbour). We were surprised that even though it was a Friday night, the restaurant was less than half full. For a restaurant of this standard, in any other developed city, tables are very much sought after especially for a weekend dinner.