Above: Hanwoo beef at theÂ Grand InterContinental Seoul’s Grand CafĂ©.
A handful of creative kitchens in the South Korean capital are putting a nouveau spin on traditional recipes, with settings and service to match. Is this the harbinger of a new generation of Korean restaurant?
By Jonathan Hopfner
Photographs by Jae-hyun Kim
Picture, if you willâ€”and pityâ€”the foreign traveler on a solo hunt for a taste of local cuisine in Seoul. Not wanting to stray too far from his city-center hotel, he wanders down a side street where the gaily painted signs of dozens of casual restaurants beckonâ€”but only in the native hangul script. Finally spotting a window-front photo of something that looks safe enoughâ€”a bowl of rice topped with vegetables, or a steaming pot of soupâ€”he musters up his courage and steps inside.
Itâ€™s busy, with clusters of patrons chattering at high volume under glaring fluorescent lights. No one offers to show him to a table. When he does sit down, a severe-looking middle-aged waitress appears and tosses him a menuâ€”which is again in Korean onlyâ€”then taps her foot impatiently while he muddles through the grainy pictures trying to decide what to order. The food is eventually delivered with a clatter: a murky, still-boiling bowl of stew accompanied by a multitude of small dishes, all filled with unidentifiable vegetables or bits of meat, slathered in the same fire-red sauce.
Not every touristâ€™s dining experience in South Koreaâ€™s sprawling capital is like this, of course. Still, itâ€™s a plausible enough scenario that the city has something of an image problem. Despite being among East Asiaâ€™s largest metropolises and having one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in the world, Seoul, simply put, is not known as a dining destination, at least not compared to places like Tokyo or Bangkok.
Thankfully, there are signs that change may be at hand. The South Korean government recently created a multimillion-dollar fund to boost the global profile of hansik (the umbrella term for Korean food) with the ambitiousâ€”some would say unrealisticâ€”goal of making it one of the worldâ€™s top five most popular ethnic cuisines. While much of this is earmarked for overseas marketing, at least some of the money will go toward raising Seoulâ€™s culinary standards. But arguably more important is an independent groundswell of talented, mainly young, chefs who are revitalizing the cityâ€™s dining scene with a new breed of restaurants that are both boldly contemporary yet rooted in age-old traditions.
â€śThese are very modern kitchens, but they also tap into memories and nostalgia,â€ť says Daniel Gray, a Seoul-based food blogger and chief marketing officer of consultancy Oâ€™ngo Food Communications. â€śItâ€™s Korean food in a totally new form.â€ť
One of the pioneers of the movement occupies an appropriate perch on the forested slopes of Namsan, a mountain at the geographic heart of Seoul. Poom Seoul, the brainchild of chef-owner Roh Young-hee, could draw crowds for its views alone. The subdued, almost minimalist interior is framed by massive windows that offer sweeping vistas of the tangled cityscape below, creating a breezy, expansive setting in a town where the sensation of space is too often lacking.
As impressive as Poom looks, Roh has done her best to ensure that visitors will be just as enthralled by whatâ€™s on the plate. While offered in French-style courses and presented with flair on beautiful handmade china, her food is undeniably Korean, drawing liberally on staple rural condiments like ganjang, the countryâ€™s rich, viscous soy sauce, and doenjang, a pungent bean paste. A onetime designer, Roh has a fashionistaâ€™s sense of presentation. â€śBut even if these dishes are visually different,â€ť she says, â€śI try to make sure the traditional tastes are still there.â€ť