French cuisine taken to a higher level

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French cuisine taken to a higher level

Opening a French restaurant in Korea used to be a recipe for disaster. To survive, restaurateurs modified their menus to fit local tastes and, in the process, lost their distinctive Gallic quality.

Now, a new wave of French restaurants is opening. And this time, the market is mature enough to embrace authentic fare. Two new offerings, Table 34 and Chez K, both in southern Seoul, elevate French dining to a new level.

Table 34 sits atop the Grand Inter-Continental Hotel in Samseong-dong. Its warm, softly-lit interior is designed by Tony Chi, a master of minimalism based in New York City. The chef de cuisine is Jens Heier, winner of Berlin's 2002 Master Chef award, who takes a modern approach to French cuisine.

A proponent of healthy foods, Mr. Heier strives to lighten French preparations, often dispelling with heavy cream and butter sauces. His dishes accentuate the taste of fresh fish and meats, matching them with light, sometimes fruity, sauces.

Formerly the chef at Tantris, one of Germany's top restaurants, he is creating nouvelle cuisine matched with the ingredients he finds in Seoul.

He says he is particularly impressed with the angler fish, which he serves as an appetizer sauteed in butter with rosemary, thyme and garlic (20,000 won or $16). The fish is presented with tomatoes, lettuce, grapefruit and orange slices, and the contrast of tastes is memorable. The buttery sweetness of the fish is accentuated by a tangy citrus sauce.

Mr. Heier's version of foie gras terrine (23,000 won) is delightfully light. The plate is polka-dotted with sweetened bits of apple confit, making every bite a tantalizing match.

Saying that traditional pork rillette is too heavy for today's diners, Mr. Heier creates a rabbit rillette (20,000 won) that is wrapped in herb crepes. He adds sour cream to the rabbit to achieve a creamier texture, and sprinkles the crepe with a soothing balsamic reduction.

One of the more exotic items on the menu is wild boar cheeks (43,000 won), which are braised in red wine and served with a truffle cream sauce. The meat, tenderized by the wine, is rich and nearly fat-free. It goes well with the slices of carrots and turnips served with the dish.

For self-indulgent diners fraught with indecision, Mr. Hierer offers tenderloin paillard with lobster, prawns, crab and mullet (45,000 won). The beef is complimented by the foie gras and Perigord truffle.

Diners wanting something simpler can order roast mullet (26,000 won). The skin is crispy, while the flesh is extra succulent.

One of the best desserts is a chocolate terrine with pineapple confit (12,000), sprinkled with a berry sauce. The chocolate is rich, but the texture is light; Mr. Heier uses egg white rather than heavy cream.

Table 34 can seat 200 people, but it has an intimate feel with "shattered" glass panels dividing the tables. The designer, Mr. Chi, uses the panels, subdued lighting, a few Asian antiques and other earthy elements to give the feeling of late autumn. The restaurant is home to Bar 34, the city's largest wine cellar. Guests are given blankets so they can sip their selections in the cellar's 17-degree interior.

There is a chef's three-course lunch menu (35,000 and 50,000 won), and a trio of chef's menus for dinner (60,000-120,000 won).

Table 34 is located on the 34th floor of the Grand Inter-Continental hotel in Samseong-dong. It is open from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m. daily; the bar from 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. For reservations, call (02) 559-7631.

Chez K in Cheongdam-dong is a cozy corner -- complete with romantic candlelight, oil paintings and chandeliers hanging above. What makes Chez K special is its menu, which was created by Sottha Khunn, who won international acclaim during a 14-year reign at Le Cirque in New York City.

Originally from Cambodia, Mr. Khunn trained and toiled French kitchens for two decades before moving to New York to work with Daniel Boulud at Hotel Plaza Athenee and Le Cirque. Mr. Khunn became Le Cirque's executive chef in 1996, designing an Asian-accented, modern classics menu for its new Madison Avenue location. He resigned in 2001 to return to Cambodia, and now splits his time between New York and Asia. He plans to come to Seoul every three months to oversee Chez K and revise its menu, which is dominated by traditional French dishes, but also has paella and a half-dozen pastas.

Mr. Khunn trained Chez K's resident chef, Park Won-hyun, and his four assistants, starting with sauces and progressing to the most complex items on the menu, which include duck breast with leg confit graced with an orange sauce.

The foie gras terrine (29,000 won) is served with a mixed lettuce salad and a plate of toast. The look -- a swirl of pink goose liver and yellow fat -- is as distinctive and tempting as the taste.

Rolled slices of smoked salmon (12,000 won) are presented with crispy vegetables and a honey mustard sauce accented with dill. The tangy, sour and crunchy vegetables -- cucumber, turnip and carrot -- are a pleasant contrast to the soft, smooth salmon. The mustard sauce leaves a clean aftertaste.

Between the starter and the main dish, each diner gets a complementary serving of mushroom-stuffed ravioli, generously swathed with cream sauce.

The grilled Australian lamb chop (32,000 won), with fresh thyme and port wine sauce, arrives perfectly browned on the outside and pink inside. The wine sauce is robust, complementing the tender meat.

Another recommended main dish is chicken diable (25,000), grilled chicken with a mustard crust. The crust is full of spices -- cloves, dijon mustard and peppercorns -- nicely accenting the tender white meat inside.

Also on the menu is pot au feu (28,000 won), a bowl of short ribs, chicken and aromatic vegetables in a vegetable broth. This dish is uncharacteristically light, missing the rich taste of bone marrow and marmite. It is served without cornichons, strong mustard or horseradish sauce.

Chez K's creme brulee (8,000 won) is outstanding. It has a crisp sugar glaze on top that cracks to reveal a silky, creamy, sweet vanilla custard. The choux pastry (7,000 won), filled with vanilla cream, is also very good, although the puff is a bit hard and dry.

Chez K sells a 1999 Mouton Cadet, red or white, for 10,000 won a glass. The 1999 Baron Philippe, a St. Emillion, costs 12,000 won a glass. A glass of Beaujolais Nouveau is 8,000 won; 40,000 won for a bottle.

Chez K is located behind the Prada shop in Cheongdam-dong. The restaurant is open from noon-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m. daily except Sundays. Valet parking is available. For reservations, call (02) 3446-7559.

by Inēs Cho

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