Traditional vs modern Korean fine dining

The main building of The Shilla hotel may be brown, blocky and boring-looking, but it’s one of the most prestigious places to stay in Seoul.

Looking out from the top floor at 23-stories high, you get a view of Mount Namsan and the Yeong Bin Gwan hanok annex, where many famous celebrities like Jun Ji-hyun, Song Hye-kyo, Song Joong-ki and Yoo Jae-suk held their weddings.

The 23rd floor is also where you’ll find the traditional Korean fine-dining restaurant La Yeon, a bright airy space with muted cream and earth tones that exudes quiet elegance. The Wife and I were on vacation in Seoul during the spring of 2017, and our lunch reservation there was one of the most highly anticipated items on our itinerary.

We were addicted to the epic K-drama Dae Jang Geum (大長今) which featured many scenes of traditional royal Korean hansik cuisine, among all the exciting palace intrigue. And while we’re fans of everyday Korean staples like KFC (Korean, not Kentucky), kalguksu, bulgogi and tteokbokki, the idea of having a traditional meal was always on our minds.

I had not mastered the use of the flat metal Korean chopsticks at the time, and requested for disposable wooden ones, which are usually cylindrical and provide more grip. The answer was unfortunately “sorry, but no”, a sign that this was a fine-dining restaurant indeed. Good thing the chopsticks had some thickness and curve to them, and I managed to manage.

There were two set menu choices during lunch — “The Propriety” at ₩98,000 per person and “La Yeon” at ₩170,000 (ouch!). We opted for the less painful choice with an extra order of the Royal Hot Pot, which serves two, for an additional ₩60,000.

The restaurant wasn’t full as we were there early, but there were a few tables of ahjumma-aged but definitely not ahjumma-looking women and several well-dressed businessmen. I was in a polo t-shirt and khakis and was carrying my usual travel backpack, so I probably just barely scraped past the dress code.

The whole atmosphere was quiet and serene, and the waitresses almost seemed to be floating around the floor silently as they attended to each guest. They weren’t wearing the traditional puffy hanboks, but were in cream-coloured and well-tailored long dresses instead. Service was impeccable, but it did seem a bit aloof.

The first thing to arrive was a plate of some crunchy rice cracker thingy and a small bowl of slivered dried red dates. The cracker was ok, but the dates were strangely addictive. I usually don’t like red dates, but I found myself eating piece-after-piece-after-piece.

The first few courses arrived in a measured pace, and started with a chestnut puree topped with a snowfall of shaved chestnuts, followed by seared beef rolls with finely julienned vegetables and a bowl (plate?) of rice porridge with cod that was accompanied by water kimchi.

The chestnut was earthy, creamy and tasted like autumn. The hanwoo beef rolls were lightly seasoned to allow the robust beefiness to shine, and the porridge provided a nice comforting warmth. I’m not a fan of Korean-style porridge, unfortunately, and prefer the much lighter and more watery Teochew moi, but this was actually quite nice.

The water kimchi was too light for my taste, but I suppose the heavily-spiced aged version that I like would have overpowered everything. And that would have been bad, because, you know, fine dining.

We chose two different hanwoo beef courses for variety — char-grilled sirloin and braised short-rib. Both were rich and meaty with just enough fat to provide a good balance between flavour and bite.

I couldn’t help but compare them against their Japanese close cousins, teppanyaki and sukiyaki, though I know I really shouldn’t because of political sensitivity. So let’s just say that they each have their strengths and I like them all.

Wagyu, especially really good wagyu, emphasizes marbling and melt-in-your-mouth fat that gives it its amazing flavour. You do taste the meat itself, but it’s only a supporting actor. A very good supporting actor, but the fat steals the show.

Hanwoo, on the other hand, is like having two equally good co-stars who work together with perfect chemistry; like Mulder & Scully, Larry & Balki and Statler & Waldorf. Bonus points if you can name their respective shows!

Hint: the first one should be easy, Balki’s last name is Bartokomous and Waldorf sports a thick, white moustache and is extremely grumpy.

The Royal Hot Pot was served next, along with hot charcoal to keep everything nice and hot. The presentation was impressive, but for an additional ₩60,000 top-up, the taste didn’t match up to expectations. The broth was rich and the ingredients were good, but on hindsight, I wouldn’t have ordered it, even though it did add to the fanciness of the meal.

The star of the meal was definitely the dolsot bibimbap, served with one whole abalone, soup and various banchan. I’m a huge fan of bibimbap, and order it frequently, even on planes, and this was really good. Or maybe I was influenced by the addition of the abalone. Why? Because, abalone. And it tasted as good as it looks.

Dessert was a red ginseng ice cream topped with shaved ice flakes. The ice cream looked like an innocent scoop of plain vanilla, but looks can be deceiving. If you’ve ever had Korean red ginseng before, you’ll remember the earthy bittersweet taste of something that’s spent years buried deep beneath the earth.

This was the healthiest dessert that I’ve ever had, and probably ever will have. The aftertaste lingered even as we had our ending cup of tea, and well after that. I’m sure they didn’t have ice cream on the menu in the olden days, but it provided a good ending to the mostly traditional meal.

A few days later, we were at Jungsik in the high-end Gangnam-gu neighbourhood. The chef/owner Yim Jung-sik opened his Seoul restaurant in 2009, followed by another in New York in 2011, both offering his take on modern Korean cuisine.

His Seoul restaurant is housed in another brown, blocky and boring-looking building, but was much shorter than The Shilla and gave off a minimalist industrial vibe.

The interior was a lot more welcoming, with an airy open space with blue/brown/cream hues. The menu was housed in a lush, soft and well-worn black leather and the table was set with a stainless steel spoon and the dreaded (for me) flat metal chopsticks.

Again, I asked for disposable wooden ones, and again, I was politely rejected. This time, I whipped out my own and happily placed them on the chopstick holder. When our waiter walked past, he looked at it curiously and with an amused look but didn’t say anything.

A note about the reservation process at Jungsik is worth mentioning, only because it was a bit messy and convoluted.

The Wife had to email them several times to confirm availability, and then had to fill up a form to provide credit card details for the deposit, and then still had to wait for their confirmation. Comparatively, the process with La Yeon was smoother, even though a deposit was also required.

We went for the 5-course lunch menu at ₩80,000 per person and chose one dish from each category. After the pain she went through to secure the reservation, I’m sure The Wife was thinking: “This meal better be good”.

tl;dr, it was.

It started with an amuse bouche sampler that wasn’t listed on the menu, and provided a brief tour of different tastes, textures and preparations; a prelude of courses that would be served.

We chose the mushroom with “crispy” egg and octopus with gochujang aioli as our appetisers, and once they were served, we knew that we were going to enjoy our lunch.

The mushrooms were well seasoned and, once you crack the yolk, the egg acts as a natural and creamy sauce. The octopus leg was cooked perfectly, something that’s not easy to achieve, and sat on top of the strangely familiar tasting aioli.

Apparently, the chef spent some time interning at restaurants in Spain, and the influence is obvious. The mushrooms reminded me of the simple Basque tapas of peas with egg yolk, and the octopus was clearly a Korean take on the classic pulpo a la gallega, with gochujang replacing smoky Spanish pimenton.

Fusion food is always tricky to pull off well, but Jungsik’s execution, in my opinion, was close to flawless.

I didn’t pay close attention when the waiters were removing our plates and realised too late that they had confiscated my wooden chopsticks. Luckily I had multiple pairs in my backpack and quickly fished out a replacement pair.

When they served our rice course, I could tell that they were surprised that the wooden chopsticks re-appeared. I was fully prepared to continue being passive-aggressive and continue replenishing any that they took. They probably sensed my stubbornness determination and let me be for the rest of the meal.

The rice bowls were small portions of rice topped with raw sea urchin and grilled swordfish respectively. We each had half-a-bowl and swapped with each other upon reaching the mid-point.

I started with the sea urchin, which was briny, creamy and contrasted with the crunchy bits of fried millet. The swordfish rice was also good, but it unfortunately had killer competition. Apparently both of us agreed which was better, because I failed in my attempt to reclaim my black bowl.

We thought that the uni rice was going to be the best dish of the day, but it was eclipsed by our seafood dishes.

It’s easy to overcook lobster but this was done to perfection. I don’t know if it was cooked sous vide but it definitely tasted like it was. Gochujang made an encore appearance, this time emulsified with beurre blanc. The plating was beautiful and I thought it was the prettiest among all the dishes served.

The Ok Dom was a snapper served with its scales intact, fried to form a strange curly coating. I was a bit apprehensive during the first bite as I’d never eaten fish served with scales before, but my concerns proved to be unfounded. It was strangely delicious, especially when paired with the local greens and slivers of tteok.

As the restaurant started filling up, the noise level rose significantly and we were finding it hard to hold a conversation without raising our voices. It’s a pity that they didn’t properly consider the acoustics when creating their space.

For the meat dish, we went with the Ssam which came in a portion for two. The dish was a dressed-up version of what you’d get in a Korean BBQ joint.

Fatty pork belly was replaced with pork jowl and accompaniments were served in a fancy glass plate with small indentations, but the way of eating it remained the same — take a piece of vegetable, put the pork on it, add samjang and sides, wrap it up and stuff it in your mouth. It was fun and tasty at the same time.

We finally reached our dessert course and my Cheongdam Pie was a deconstructed apple pie. The Wife had their signature Dolhareubang, which was a mini replica of stone statues found in Jeju island and a whimsical end to the meal.

The petite fours served with my black coffee and The Wife’s chrysanthemum tea were not the usual chocolates but small Korean cookies.

Seoul had never struck me as a city for fine dining, but this meal at Jungsik, and the earlier one at La Yeon, completely changed my mind.

The emphasis at La Yeon was on preserving traditional Korean cuisine, whereas Jungsik’s focus was to meld Korean flavours with European techniques. I thought that both achieved their objectives to near perfection.

One thing that struck me was how affordable the meals where. Fine-dining is not cheap and meals of similar quality at a French, Japanese or Spanish restaurant would easily have been 2-3x more expensive.

I’m sure that when high-end Korean cuisine, be it traditional or modern, gains more global recognition, the prices will move to match the elevated status. During this transition period, I’m just glad to be able to enjoy such good food at such friendly prices.

If you enjoy the occasional fine-dining meal and Korean restaurants have never appeared on your radar, perhaps this would be a good time to widen your horizon and given them a try. I’m confident that you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

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