Join the Chinese Culinary Revolution

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Join the Chinese Culinary Revolution

Chinese restaurants are as common as kimchi in downtown Seoul. Generally there two types - small, pseudo-Chinese eateries with cheap eats, and pricey restaurants with private rooms and authentic cuisine. The small eateries are usually little "holes in the wall" and serve inexpensive takeaway food in plastic containers. At the classy Chinese eateries, the food is generally better, and plastic chopsticks -- similar to those used on the mainland -- are the preferred utensil.

Quality Chinese food and service are so scarce that a five-star hotel may seem the only choice, particularly for newlyweds looking for a posh place to hold their wedding banquets. But be prepared to pay through the nose.

Is there anywhere to enjoy delicious yet affordable Chinese food in a pleasant atmosphere?

It just so happens there is. When On the Rock opened on the hill at Cheongdam-dong last June, passersby mistook the place for a gallery or a cafe. Like the expensive private homes in the area, On the Rock is beautifully designed inside and out.

The entranceway, paved in gray and black gravel, leads to a manicured lawn. Cream-colored parasols bloom among the age-old evergreen trees and shrubs, and the garden is large enough to accommodate several small tables. Outdoor heaters keep diners warm, even in the middle of winter. Because the restaurant is on the side of a hill looking down on the lights of Apkujeong-dong, there is a feeling of being above the fray in a rarefied environment.

The interior is modern. Unlike most Chinese restaurants decorated with traditional motifs and colors, On the Rock uses a minimal yet eye-catching contrast of brown, black and white. Dark brown mahogany columns are set against glass panels. White tables rest on a black marble floor.

On the first floor, the tables are far enough apart for diners to hold private conversations - or just enjoy the garden view.

On warmer days, the second floor balcony is the ideal location for a meal to remember. Diners look out over the gardens and beautiful buildings of Cheongdam-dong, probably Seoul's most exclusive neighborhood.

Table settings are simple yet elegant, as is the presentation of the delicious food served in delicate white porcelain. The place is so sensual that the red chili sauce appears redder, green bok choy seems greener and brown bean paste browner.

The menu features dishes from different Chinese provinces, a surprisingly pleasant mix of northern and southern flavors.

For a relatively light lunch, manager Kim Sa-sung recommends Course C. This starts with a green salad topped with fresh sliced chestnuts and crabmeat. Then comes shark fin soup, followed by scallops and bok choy stew. Main dishes include spicy chicken and cashew nuts, prawns with cream lemon sauce and fried clams in hot black bean sauce.

On the Rock chefs use a secret recipe for the black bean sauce. The recipe involves a secret fermentation process that blends more than 20 kinds of sauces.

On the Rock's menu features a dish that is "a very special food for perpetual youth and longevity." This dish, On The Rock Special is made from more than a dozen rare and exotic ingredients, including Eastern herbs, deer tendon, beef gristle, shark fin, pine mushrooms, sea cucumbers, abalone, scallops and Sahohsingh wine - savory tastes that will please the most eclectic palates. And while it may add a little oomph to your life, don't expect to ring in Y3K.

Unlike some Chinese cuisine, food at On the Rock is not inundated with oil. The chefs know what they're doing; they handle a wok to fry green onion with the precision of a Swiss clock.

On the Rock is a Chinese restaurant that departs slightly from tradition by serving a variety of wines from China, Korea, California, Italy and France. Among French red wines, Mr. Kim recommends an affordable CH. Talbot '94, Saint-Emillion or Mouton Cadet. For white, he suggests the Chablis. The house wine, available by the glass or bottle, is red or white Bordeaux. Korean Majuang Mosel, a local vintage, is also available.

This winter, Mr. Kim is big on the Beaujolais, or Moet Chandon for more festive occasions. The Shaohsing wine, which this reviewer found zesty, is served warm and goes well with dried plums and rock sugar.

For dessert, look no further than the candied bananas. This is a simple dish, but it requires careful attention and perfect timing to get it just right. Small pieces of ripe banana are dipped in hot caramel syrup, then quickly plunged into ice water. The result: the outside peel is hot, but the fruit is cold.

On the Rock is a delightful experience, right to the last drop of excellent jasmine tea.

At On the Rock, the price of entrees ranges from 6,000 won ($ 5) to 70,000 won ($ 58), and a single dish can be ordered with a choice of small (for 2 to 3 persons) or regular (for 3 to 4 persons) servings. The price of course meal for lunch ranges from 15,000 won to 40,000 won, for dinner 42,000 won to 110,000 won and 10 percent VAT will be added.

On the Rock is located at 83-21 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul. It is open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch; 5:30 to 10 p.m. for dinner. Valet parking is available. For reservations call 02-544-1840.

by Inae Cho

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