Seorae Village’s claim to fame is a bit out of the ordinary, to put it mildly.
According to Lim Young-ja, owner of the restaurant La Popolarita, the area - in Banpo-dong, southern Seoul - had been a well-kept secret until a horrific murder of twin infants by their French parents in 2006.
“Ironically enough, with the sudden media attention on the neighborhood, a few French bistros [on Seorae Village’s main street] turned the area into a hip ‘it’ place for Seoulites, and it has grown considerably in size ever since,” Lim said.
In the midst of the tragedy five years ago, the area started gaining recognition as Seoul’s French Quarter. Today, over 40 restaurants, wineries and cafes stand along its main street.
Long before then, however, Seorae Village had steadily been evolving as a place for quality cuisine.
Park Jin, a realtor at Daesung agency, which has been in the village for 22 years, says that French expats started flocking to Seorae Village two decades ago, when major French businesses opened branches in Korea. A big group of French expats residing in Seorae Village at the time were employed by TGV and helped set up the KTX high-speed train service in Korea.
“The French school [Lycee Francais de Seoul] that moved to Seorae-ro in 1985 enticed more French expats to come here,” Park said.
According to experts in the area, this expat community, with its posh European villas and access to the nearby national library, also helped bring wealthy Koreans to the area.
These days, the area is popular with trendy Seoulites in their 20s and 30s looking for European-style restaurants, brunch places or dessert cafes with a laid-back atmosphere.
Kim Ji-min, a self-proclaimed Francophile from Seocho-dong, says that it is this international feel that has brought her to Seorae Village again and again.
“Watching French families casually strolling along a sidewalk patterned after the French flag, right here in Seoul, was a unique experience for me,” said Kim, who first visited two years ago.
One of Kim’s favorite restaurants is La Popolarita, which specializes in both French and Italian cuisine.
Opened in 1996, La Popolarita is owned by Lim Young-ja and her husband. The restaurant prides itself as being one of the oldest establishments in an area where fledgling eateries come and go quickly, many within one or two years.
Lim says all the pizzas she serves are made in the restaurant and that she uses chlorella (a kind of algae) dough.
“Believe it or not, I have known some of my customers for over ten years,” Lim said.
If La Popularita is a reminder of Seorae Village’s past, restaurants like July aim for a more contemporary clientele by serving modern French cuisine with a twist.
The restaurant, which opened in 2007, is currently run by owner and chef Se Deok-oh, who says he studied French cooking in New York for two years. Se’s creation “Foie gras two ways,” made with Jeju orange chocolate sauce, became an instant hit among regulars
“My regulars come here to taste dishes they can’t find anywhere else,” said Se.
With Seorae Village increasingly attracting younger visitors, the area has seen a handful of brunch cafes open in recent years, including Cafe Haru, Kitchen Flo and Stove.
Cafe Haru, near the Seoul Palace Hotel, serves up a continental-style weekend brunch. During the summer months, the restaurant’s terrace seats are coveted by visitors and its open-air design is reminiscent of Europe.
“I figured that opening a brunch cafe similar to the ones in Europe would be a pleasant surprise for the European expat population here,” said Hyun Hae, one of the three sisters who manages the cafe.
Along with brunch cafes, the area’s wineries have become some of the most popular in southern Seoul among twentysomethings - contrary to the initial predictions of Choi Hun, the owner of wine bar Tour De Vin.
“When we first opened [in 1999] wine was quite expensive in Korea, so most of our customers were in their 30s and 40s,” said Choi. “Since wine has become more accessible to the general public in recent years, our customer base has expanded to include people in their mid-20s.”
Choi is also the founder of the Korean Academy of Wine, a private institution that trains sommeliers. Hence, all of Tour De Vin’s employees are either sommeliers who have graduated from the academy or are students there.
Another wine bar in the area, WineNara, has made a name for itself with major wine sales in April and December. During sales, wine is offered at discounts of up to 90 percent.
At Italian restaurant and wine bar Arte, customers can enjoy Mediterranean-style pasta and pizza with a glass of wine on an open patio with persimmon and pine trees.
In addition to the area’s wineries and restaurants, authentic European patisseries, such as L’Ecole Douce and its sister store Hotel Douce, have been a draw for visitors.
According to the owner, Jung Hong-yeon, the former head chef at Rihga Royal Hotel Tokyo’s bakery, L’Ecole Douce is a baking academy and cafe, teaching students how to bake over 120 classic French desserts.
“Since all of our staff speak fluent French and English, our academy has had a lot of French students,” said Jung.
Hotel Douce, located down the block from L’Ecole Douce, sells classic French desserts baked in the academy.
The newly opened patisserie Comme de Patisserie might be small in size, with space for only two tables, but its French pastries, including grapefruit tarts and green pea chiffon cakes, have paved the way to success for its owner.
“Seorae Village used to be a chiefly residential neighborhood where only a few office workers stopped by to dine or have an espresso. But it has become rather overcrowded,” said Kim Suk-kyu, who was an employee at the Seoul Palace Hotel for 12 years. “Still, I believe that it won’t morph into one of those commercialized areas like Samcheong-dong or Insa-dong as long as the French residents are here.”
|Arte / La Popolarita|
Opened in 2007, Arte offers delectable Italian dishes, including Napoli style brick-oven pizza and Gorgonzola spaghetti, at affordable prices. Customers can eat inside or opt for a seat on the patio, draped in lush persimmon and pine trees.
Lunch sets are priced from 19,000 won ($17.54) to 30,000 won while a la carte dishes range from 5,000 won to 42,000 won.
Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
105-12 Seocho District, Banpo-dong
(02) 532-0990La Popolarita
With its oak furniture and homey atmosphere, this French-Italian restaurant prides itself on its seven types of pizza and 16 pasta dishes. Its specialty is escargot.
Lunch sets are 19,000 won, and dinner sets range from 38,000 won to 79,000 won.
Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
96-1 Seocho District, Banpo-dong
(02) 593-2340, blog.naver.com/popolarita
Comme de Patisserie
|Comme de Patisserie / WineNara|
Inspired by renowned Japanese patisserie Lilien Berg, this congenial patisserie is bathed in vibrant reds and blues and is managed by two patissiers who studied in France and Japan. It offers baked goods from croissants and baguettes to fruit tarts and quiche.
Prices range from 1,700 won to 6,000 won.
Hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
170-88 Seocho District, Banpo-dong
WineNara holds promotional events from April to December with discounts of up to 80 or 90 percent. The interior of the adjacent wine bar has the feel of a European merchant shop from the 1800s.
Wine starts at 20,000 won, and appetizers range from 13,000 won to 25,000 won.
Store hours are 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily, and wine bar hours are 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
92-12 Seocho District, Banpo-dong
(02) 592-9035, www.winenara.com
|Cafe Haru / Tour du Vin|
This European cafe becomes an open-air cafe in the spring. It is known for its global brunch sets: American (pancakes and sausage), English (eggs, bacon and toast) and Belgian (waffles and sausage).
Brunch sets are 14,000 won to 15,000 won.
Hours are 10 a.m. to midnight daily.
74-11 Seocho District, Banpo-dong
(02) 534-7972 Tour du Vin
Owned by Choi Hun, who is also the founder of the Korean Academy of Wines, Tour du Vin employs a team of sommeliers who will gladly recommend one of the more than 400 wines on the menu.
Wine prices range from 30,000 won to 40,000 won. Appetizers range from 9,000 won to 36,000 won.
Hours are 12 p.m. to 1 a.m. from Mondays to Saturdays.
96-7 Seocho District, Banpo-dong
(02) 595-1846, http://blog.naver.com/tourduvin
|July / L’Ecole Douce and Hotel Douce|
Opened in 2007, July features modern French cuisine and original dishes created by owner and chef Se Deuk-oh. One of his best-selling creations, “Foie gras two ways,” is made with Jeju orange chocolate sauce.
Lunch sets range from 23,000 won to 60,000 won and dinner sets range from 65,000 won to 85,000 won.
Lunch is from 12 to 2 p.m., and dinner is from 6 to 10 p.m. daily.
577-20 Seocho District, Banpo-dong
(02) 534-9544~5, www.julyrestaurant.orgL’Ecole Douce and Hotel Douce
L’Ecole Douce offers over 120 classic French desserts. Hotel Douce sells desserts baked at the school. Prices range from 1,000 won to 40,000 won.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
104-1 Seocho District, Banpo-dong
(02) 6084-5705, www.lecole-douce.co.kr
*Reporting by Cho Jae-eun, Junghee Lee, Chang Hae-won.
By Special Reporting Team [email@example.com]