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For years, the only high-end restaurants in Seoul were European, or sometimes Japanese. Korean food was everyday food, not special occasion food, and around-the-block queues would form for the latest pizza place rather than the most creative kimchi soup joint.
But in the last six years, a group of imaginative young chefs has taken Korean food in the South Korean capital in unexpected directions, pairing 21st-century cooking techniques with traditional flavours. The result? A whole new kind of cuisine, served in international-standard restaurants, based on Korean ingredients and created by Korean chefs.
Jung Sik Dang
Leader of the pack is Jung Sik Dang, the brainchild of chef Yim Jung Sik. The Culinary Institute of America graduate opened the Seoul-based flagship restaurant in 2009 and started a New York branch soon after; the latter received its first Michelin star in 2012.
Tucked away in a quiet alley in the trendy Gangnam district (you may have heard of it), the Seoul restaurant is a small and peaceful space, with a modern, understated decor that juxtaposes nicely with the exciting, colourful cuisine.
Jung Sik Dang combines ingenuity and impeccable form, turning out dishes like a bowl of tomato jelly, basil sorbet and fresh vegetables, all mixed together at the table in a modern spin on bibimbap (a traditional dish of rice, vegetables, meat and chilli paste, which are stirred together right before eating). The crispy pork belly, a staple of Korean cuisine called samgyeopsal, is intensely rich, and silky chocolate mousse is served up in tiny traditional kimchi pots made from chocolate, which are decorated with cake crumbs and edible flowers.
Congdu has an incredible location -- nestled inside the Seoul National History Museum with a terrace that overlooks a sunlit courtyard. But inside, the tasteful, slightly generic decor serves as an unobtrusive background to food that manages to be both healthy and full of flavour. Using mostly local ingredients, the set menus are arranged by colour – choose from orange, green or white – and there is an a la carte menu as well.
Standout dishes include the slow-roasted black pork (from Korea’s Jeju Island), cooked for 48 hours to enhance the flavour; the barley bibimbap with brown bean paste, accompanied by freshly made tofu; and a dessert of tofu cream tiramisu with espresso and pine nut puree.
The food does not assault the senses with the typical heat and pungency of traditional Korean dishes. Rather, Congdu’s unique appeal is that it offers a gentle and artful introduction to Korea’s most common flavours, like the tang of fermented cabbage and the slightly sour saltiness of bean paste.
Si Hwa Dam
From a restaurant in a museum to a restaurant designed like a museum, the dishes at Si Hwa Dam (5-5 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2-798-3311) in the Yongsan district are almost too beautiful to eat. Serving up works of art disguised as food, Si Hwa Dam provides a sensory experience unlike any other in Korea. The restaurant’s name translates to “poetry, painting and conversation”, and this theme influences everything, from the restaurant’s interior design (cabinets filled with antiques, wooden tables, abundant natural light) to the poetic menus and the individual dishes, which seem to be 3D renderings of scenes from nature.
A mass of pebbles might surround a dish, while flowers top a mound of dried strawberries, pears and lotus fruit. One dish, titled “fields of wheat ripening in the sunshine”, is arranged to evoke exactly that, with a fan of greens mimicking a spray of wheat. When they take your reservation, they will also ask for a photo; telling you why would spoil the surprise.
Located atop Mount Namsan, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that offer stunning views, Chef Young Hee Roh works magic at Poom, creating new menus every season that are inspired by Korean royal, or banga, cuisine. Her use of seasonal ingredients is not a new thing or a gimmick – it is actually based on Korean tradition. Korea has four distinct seasons, each with its own dominant ingredients, and many dishes are meant to be eaten only at certain times of year, such as cold noodles in the summer. The food at Poom follows these strictures.