Feedback: Let Him Entertain YouHere's a test to measure one's level of hipness in Seoul:
What are Anna Bini, Marie, Arancio, Che Bong, Dal, Ganga and La Salle de Matinee? And what do they have in common?
Answer: They are all restaurants, and they were all created by the same man.
The seven names above are some of the most fashionable and successful restaurants in Seoul, frequented by trendsetters, stunningly dressed celebrities and opinion leaders of every stripe and plaid. In these places, food is only part of the overall artistic presentation.
The combination of culinary presentation, interior design and service is enough to take Seoul diners up to a higher station than they have previously known. In the face of such splendor, visitors invariably ask: "So who's responsible for all this?"
The answer is the creative force and restaurateur Shin Sung-soon. It may take discerning eyes to grasp fully the poetic inspiration behind Mr. Shin's creations, but his formula has already proved sensational.
In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, he revealed his idiosyncratic reasoning, "In the old days, capitalism used to be based on labor and monetary investment, but nowadays capitalism has taken another form. The goal of capitalism today should not just be about making a profit. If you're only out to make money, you can't succeed. I don't make food just to make money. Now the focus is on culture and people. We live in a world in which your imagination can become your business capital."
And his restaurants display plenty of that imaginative capital. At Anna Bini, an Italian restaurant located in Cheongdam-dong, a canary sitting in a country-style pantry greets entering guests with a welcome chirp. Marie, a Chinese restaurant in the same area, has the most unforgettable aquarium. The tank's interior resembles the intoxicatingly beautiful image of a Chinese silk painting, except that the fish are real. The modern decor and special handling of Korean foods at Che Bong, also located near Anna Bini, have given the restaurant a loud buzz. Located inside Artsonje Center, the Indian restaurant Dal, with its scarlet wallpaper and black-framed mirror, exudes art nouveau sensibilities. And in Sinsa-dong, Ganga, another Indian restaurant, with its open kitchen and minimal design concept, has been almost single-handedly responsible for the recent popularizing of authentic Indian food in the capital. Finally, La Salle de Matinee features three different color rooms, red, yellow and green, where guests can dine on French cuisine and wines, and luxury teas imported from China, India and France.
Whether visitors to these restaurants come just for a cup of tea or for a full, multicourse meal, these restaurants have ambience to spare. No wonder finding a table at at any of them without a reservation is often difficult to do.
A Korean-Japanese, Mr. Shin, formerly a creative director at a database management company in Japan, first came to Korea in 1988 as a businessman and saw many opportunities here. Since the 1990s, he has traveled extensively in Asia － the Philippines, China and India in particular － and developed his ideas on starting new restaurants.
Korea's recent restaurant boom doesn't worry him. In fact, it gives him confidence. "The restaurant business is becoming more commercialized to serve the public good," he said, "Unfortunately, most restaurants may be able to maintain the architecture, but not the management."
And here's the latest news: Mr. Shin has joined with a Korean entrepreneur, Park Byung-chae, to open a new restaurant.
Mr. Park, formerly a patron of Marie, saw the photographs of Picasso and Lu-xin, a Chinese contemporary writer, on the menu and fell in love with the poetic inspiration behind the food and service two years ago. He wanted to share that spirit as the means of expanding his men's clothing company, Royal Shirts, which his father founded 32 years ago. Together, Mr. Shin and Mr. Park recently opened another Chinese restaurant, Au Restaurant Chinois de Marie, or for short, "De Marie." Their aim is nothing less than revolutionizing the concept and perception of Chinese restaurants.
The owners spent three months building the ultimate Asian-style oasis in the frantic proximity of the Hyundai Department Store in Apgujeong-dong. Mr. Park proudly points to the details of their creation: The inspiration comes in part from the Chinese movie "Center Stage," starring Maggie Cheung, and some French-style Chinese restaurants. A projection TV screen near a lotus pond in the restaurant plays classic movies, and the hall is filled with various kinds of trendy music, ranging from Latin dance to trance techno.
Mr. Shin's and Mr. Park's personal touches can be seen everywhere in the spacious restaurant, which is divided into two areas: the main dining area and the bar, called Black Forest. Interior decorations include the two men's travel mementoes and art collection: Chinese mah-jongg tables, Ming-style chairs, antique bird cages, portraits of Mao Zedong and familiar Eames-style stools.
The restaurant serves mainly Szechuan and Gwangzhou-style cuisine, or what Mr. Park calls the "extract" drawn from their culinary experiences in a number of Chinese cities. To make those extracts available to a broader range of customers, he offers dishes at affordable prices. A la carte dishes cost between 3,000 won and 30,000 won ($2.34-$23.40), and multicourse meals between 30,000 won and 80,000 won.
The joint efforts of the two have yielded one more successful restaurant. Mr. Shin says, "To succeed, you should be able to 'read' the time, the progress of culture and people-oriented advertising. The sense of the times and culture should be the key."
Mr. Shin and Park share the same design and business philosophies. They pay attention to details; they use high concepts by creating an illusion of what "Italian," "French" or whatever the region they choose to showcase; and they know about being timely. Finally, their food is for real.
Au Restaurant Chinois de Marie is located in the basement of Royal Building near the Hyundai Department Store in Apgujeong-dong. The restaurant's hall opens daily from noon to 3:30 p.m., and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. The Black Forest Bar opens from 5:30 p.m. until 1 a.m. For reservations, call 02-512-0830.
by Inēs Cho