To southern France via Itaewon

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To southern France via Itaewon

Teleportation is an impossibility; a pipe dream restricted to the pages of science-fiction novels, right? Wrong.

It is a gray, drizzly Sunday afternoon. I am walking through Itaewon, wife and offspring in tow, when we happen upon a rather smart, wooden forecourt, set with tables and chairs; very Mediterranean. Beyond are glass doors, framed with blue wooden shutters. Above is the name: "La Cigale" ("The Cicada"). Intrigued, we enter, and that is when it happens. Boom! ?we are no longer in Itaewon, no longer in Korea.

We are in a small cafe, on a side street in a southern French village. There is a tiled floor, ochre walls and Provencal tablecloths.

At the rear is a tiny bar; mounted on the wall next to it is a porcelain cicada, the insect whose incessant buzzing is the constant background symphony to a Provencal summer.

Tables are jammed tight together. Patrons are all rubbing elbows; eating, drinking, laughing, smoking and talking like the dickens. It's pretty, cozy, noisy and informal.

The menu is limited, featuring typical southern French coast and country fare. There is an excellent range of beers and a decently priced wine list (French only, naturellement). However, when in Rome ... a pastis Ricard (aniseed spirit on the rocks; 5,000 won, or $4) is the only appropriate aperitif. The bread basket arrives with thick chunks of warmed, doughy bread, served with butter.

For starters there are two choices; the appetizer board (8,000 won) and soup of the day (6,000 won). The board boasts seven (seven!) appetizers, served in small pots on a wooden board. They include pork and salmon pates, clams in olive oil and tomato sauce, eggplant and olive roulade, grilled whitebait -- faced with a rural repast like this, one wishes one had gone a little easier on the bread. A great range of simple tastes, served in generous portions.

The soup, a white bean and chickpea, is also a large serving, but a touch thin; not in the same league as the appetizer board.

For mains, the daily special is couscous (20,000 won per head). This North African staple of fine-textured semolina dough and wheat flour is for French diners what fajitas are to Americans and curry is to Brits; the ethnic dish of choice. It's a whopping serving: A mound of couscous, accompanied with chunks of carrot and eggplant, white cabbage, beef and minced kofte, all served with a minty, red meat gravy to which the diner adds chili to taste. Splendid stuff.

We also order entrecote (18,000 won). This steak is usually served with herbs, but the chef offers to make it with that old classic, cream and black pepper sauce. And why not? The steak itself is -- let's be honest -- not a premier cut. But the rich sauce, white cabbage and roast spuds sprinkled with herbs more than make up for that. Solid.

Dinner is washed down with the house red (5,000 won a glass). This has a dark, fruity nose, an austere palate, and a peppery, spicy finish: not a bad quaffer.

For dessert there is a superb chocolate souffle (8,000 won) that is hard on top and soft inside. It's sprinkled with icing sugar, isn't too sweet and is served with vanilla ice cream.

Then there is coffee -- but enough!

These are hearty vitals, served in hearty portions. Even we, intrepid trencherman all, find it a trial to lurch to the door and exit.

And when we do -- sacre bleu! -- we find ourselves back in Itaewon, on a rainy November afternoon.

Verdict: Quite a place. The convivial chef/manager Nicholas Demidoff, a Montpellier native, exclaims, "This is not nose-in-the-air cuisine!" And he's right.

If your only experience of French dining is nouvelle or haute cuisine, come here and savor the flavors and ambience of rural Provence, but don't fault it for lack of sophistication. This same cuisine has bred men like Escoffier and Ducasse, the master chefs of their generations.

by Andrew Salmon

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