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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
menu included seared beef, marinated for eight hours and served with a soybean
paste sauce and scallions; shitake mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, deep-fried in
brown rice oil and served in warm chicken broth; and, for dessert, balls of
chestnuts mashed and mixed with honey and cinnamon.
placed when the reservation is made (at least once business day in advance), rather
than during the visit, as the labour-intensive dishes require a lengthy preparation
time. Menus are available on the website, including thoughtfully set menus for
vegetarians and diabetics.
Elbon the Table
Home of the
self-appointed “crazy chef”, Hyun Seok
Choi, the sleek and stylish Elbon the Table
sits above a luxury clothing store in Gangnam. Choi is famous for taking risks with his food, and while the
results can be hit-or-miss, the menu is always innovative and, at its best,
astonishing. The menu of Italian-influenced dishes changes monthly and most
give a hat-tip to Korean ingredients; a dinner might include rice porridge with bottarga (cured
fish roe), quail egg and fried pig skin; Korean beef with soy sauce jelly; and foie
gras with gochujang ice cream – gochujang is the spicy red chilli sauce that
accompanies about 50% of Korean dishes.
More conventional offerings, like strip loin steak
with five kinds of salt, are also on offer, but if the goal is to see where
Korean cuisine is headed, a sense of adventure is advised.