Sunday, February 24, 2008

COEX Inter-Continental Lunch

Yesterday we had the excitement of going for two Michelin star rated food in Seoul. Previous attempts at fine dining here had seen us having to serve ourselves a starter from a buffet. Carpaccio looks pretty when arranged by a chef, when arranged by a cack-handed, half drunk northerner it looks like a pile of raw meat. That's why we have chefs.

Coex Inter-Continental is a pretty soulless hotel, very much the chain in a big old department store hotel but the lift was fast and the view from the Sky Lounge on the 30th floor was pretty good. River views, mountain views and Seoul traffic views. You can't ask for too much more.

It is a nice dining room set up to take advantage of the views, which seems a no brainer but you would be surprised how many places get it wrong. We have tables set with linen, we have nice crockery and glassware. All good.

Lunch had two menus, one at 65,000w, about £33, and one at 55,000w, roughly £28. The more expensive had the choice of lamb(!) or beef for the meat course with an additional course of saffron risotto. Saffron is pound for pound one of the most expensive foodstuffs around and anyone with half a taste bud knows it is minging. It is one of those flavours that could be so subtle as to be indistinguishable and I would still distinguish it. Hate the stuff. It once ruined a meal in Milan sat at the table next to Benito Carbone. Anyway, because of saffron I opted for the cheaper menu. Unusual for me....

First up was a glass of Piper Heidseck. Now, I should have learned from the £25 glass of Bangkok Moet but when you are out for a good meal it really is difficult not to start with Champagne. Isn't it? This was a reasonable 20,000w(£10) glass and was very yeasty and was to match up with the first two courses.

On to the food. First up was goose liver with scampi. A thin slice of rich, fatty goose liver topped with a langouistine/scampi/Dublin Bay Prawn. Call it what you like, I love em. The plate was topped with three big strawberries. The goose liver was Foie Gras, unethical and delicious, the scampi was everything a tiger prawn isn't and the strawberry worked really well to cut through the richness of it all Though three strawberries were excessive they made my pairing of the Champagne with the first two courses look inspired.

Next up was a Lobster Ravioli, three corn yellow ravioli served up with a nice chunk of pure lobster meat, three tiny cubes of beetroot. a fat oyster and a garish pink sauce/foam. This was pretty subtle and a touch disappointing. The ravioli were good, combining that lobster sweetness with a hint of the sea, the oyster was very good in a should I really be eating this fashion, the beetroot was pointless, give me a decent slice of the beets so I can really taste it, and the sauce really let it down. It was creamy and pink, possibly under-seasoned and dare I say it, possibly microwaved. I very much doubt this but there was evidence of a skin and it did come out very quickly.

The third course was the beef and this consisted of a beef tartare with beef and polenta. The plate is presented with a tower of tartare, ground raw beef topped with a tapenade topped with a tiny, raw quails egg yolk. To its right sat 2 slices of rareish beef and two diamonds of polenta in a rich brown jus/gravy. One polenta was topped with a tiny slice of truffle. I've never had a tartare before, my fair share of raw beef yes(Yukhoe was one of my first Korean dishes and is still one of my favourites), but never the classic tartare. This was good but the tapenade was a pretty strong flavour and masked pretty much everything else. I guess raw beef and raw egg yolk aren't exactly hammering home their flavours but it just seemed a touch over the top. The grilled beef to the right was everything a meat dish should be in a place like this, perfectly seasoned with a jus/gravy that really brings out the meatiness of it all. The polenta I didn't like. Give me potatoes over grain this just tasted a bit healthy for a plate like this. The truffle was earthy.

We drank a Chianti Classico with this and despite being a 2005 and my fears of it being too young it was a very modern cherry rich glass with a smell of the sweaty leather in there. A good match to the cooked beef, the tapenade herbiness messed with it a bit.

Pudding/Dessert was an apricot thingamybob. It is hard to describe fancy puddings. There was a sorbet whose flavour I couldn't distinguish atop a set vanilla cream atop some poached apricots atop a spongey, biscuity fella. Served with a fantastic, I mean really fantastic, black fruit compote and three cubes of apricot jelly stuff. Like I say, it is difficult to describe fancy puddings. It was good though.

All in all it was a pleasure to be eating in that manner in Seoul. Fine dining is not something that seems to be easy to come by here and I will be honest, I miss it. I don't eat like that often for sure but as an occasional treat there are few more pleasurable ways to spend ones time. Tokyo has just been showered with stars in its first Michelin review. I simply cannot see that happening here. You can eat incredibly well in Korea. Incredibly well. However at the top end of things, when we move out of the peasant, homely cooking that is the basis for all cuisines into the subtle, well presented and exciting, there seems to be nowhere to go. This is a shame. There is food here that could be elevated into the sublime at the hands of a truly skilled chef.

Tables that came in after us all went for the most expensive menu and all had lamb. We need to start seeing lamb here!!!

Christ, that was long. Spring feels like it is coming and I have gone white wine crazy. Wednesday is the next Herald article and it is going to be on a white theme I reckon. Sauv Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay and Semillion. I just need to find a cheap bottle because everything I have bought recently has been over 20,000. A sign of inflation or something else?


Big Bliss said...

Heh, saffron, I'll tell me dad.....

I'm guessing the anti-foie gras movement hasn't made it that far east? Lovely review and made me quite ravenous (two slices of toast and a day in the byron watching spurs do their thang against chelsea's billions, I'm starving) but seriously, foie gras? must you?

squirrelandgman said...

My stance on foie gras is given I am a sentient being and am willingly, nay joyfully, turning my liver into pate then your average duck/goose would probably have a good crack at it too if only they knew how......

I am quite happy to eat Kobe beef too as well you know and apparently they get massages and fed beer so, you know, it all evens up.

ZenKimchi said...

You're right. I think items like Yukhoe can get that upscale treatment. In fact, I think Yukhoe is far superior to Steak Tartare in its inspired balance of flavors.

Now, tell me if I'm alone in thinking this. If a Michelen-starred chef came over to California, Italy--even Australia, he'd go out and get the freshest ingredients he can from the local market and use his Michelen-starred skills to come up with something inspired. I've been having a problem with Seoul's concept of fine dining that every little ingredient has to be flown in.

Sure, truffles and foie. That's fine. But why serve beet root and a three corn ravioli in KOREA??

What, no other local vegetable could match lobster but imported BEET ROOT?

Why does the Seoul concept of fine dining have to be to make it taste as unattached to Seoul as possible?

That's when I feel that the pricing is not on the quality of the food but the cost of importing it.

squirrelandgman said...

Yep, we were discussing beforehand where the ingredients were coming from and the logistics of shipping everything he wanted.

I guess for a few weeks sabatical in Korea then it is fair enough to go with what he knows but I would have liked to have seen something of a local influence. Something to acknowledge where in the world we were eating. I guess the fat and delcious oyster was local at the least. I really would hope so!

I have read on your site about the desire to export Korean food and make it world known. I think they need to have a truly upscale and exciting movement at home first. Something that a Wallpaper magazine can get their teeth into. At the bottom end it doesn't have the excitement of street food in Vietnam/Thailand or wherever and so they will be better served by going the upmarket route a la Japan. I can't really think of any upscale Korean dining experience here with perhaps the exception of Gaon, which I have yet to try. Maybe you can point me in the direction of something that combines really fantastic, delicate Korean cooking(not the typical homely cooking which I do love) that is served in an environment without strip lighting and food just plonked down.

Sorry, rambling a bit due to a decent Pinot Noir. I do get frustrated though at the apparent lack of fine dining here. If you discount the hotels, which I really would like to be able to do, then there seems to be very few options.

ZenKimchi said...

I've been to Gaon. Highly disappointing to the point of being a joke--starting with its over-inflated wine list. You can get food just as good, if not better, out here in Anyang at a quarter of the price. I mean, come on--300,000 won Samgyetang?? They better have fed that bird diamonds.

You know, you struck at a point. Thailand and Vietnam have the good street food. Japan can dazzle with its delicate urban cuisine. I feel that Korea's strengths can take a page from the U.S. South and provincial France--it should push itself as good honest country food. And that is something that is missing in the Western imagination of Asia. There is no Asian country food. Korea can easily fill that niche, and well.

squirrelandgman said...

Sounds good to me, with the correct presentation. Works absolutely to some of Koreas best dishes strengths. It is hugely comforting food. Combine starters of the delicate dishes, yukhoe, pajeon and some of the classic banchan with mains of the real hearty dishes.
We know it is great food here it just has to be presented better. With less cooking by me preferably. heh.

Reckon I will give Gaon a miss then! You should write it up.....

ZenKimchi said...

I've been sitting on it for a while. The New York Times may do a piece on Seoul (including Gaon), and I was asked by the reporter--who paid for my dinner there--to keep radio silence on it until the piece is published.