Under the stars, a French eatery that is worthy of a Michelin starAre there international-standard Western restaurants in Seoul? Perhaps. But in Gyeonggi province? Well.
We have been hearing of an establishment in the province for some time. It's called Le Carr?(The Square), and is owned by the chef Mine-sik Park, a Cordon Bleu graduate, who runs the establishment with his wife.
Le Carr?is set in good eating country, under the stars about an hour's drive east of Seoul. It's set beside the highway, which isn't particularly scenic, although from the second-floor dining room, you can gaze across the road, through a fringe of trees and onto the river and hills beyond.
The dining room itself is light, white and airy. Each table is set with a white cloth, silver cutlery and a potted red rose. The menu is extensive, although certain selections were unavailable when we visited. There are also sets priced from 28,000-98,000 won ($23-$82).
While we order, we are served, gratis, a platter of amuse bouche (literally, "amusements for your mouth"). Consisting of caviar canapes, tuna and black olive croutons and savory pastry sticks (sublime), these perform their function, leaving us frothing with anticipation for the appetizers.
We begin with crevette (16,000 won) and foie gras (29,000 won). The shrimp is served with a fine range of sauces; basil puree, herb mayonnaise and creamed avocado, offering a terrific combination of savory flavors. You can't eat haute cuisine without foie gras, and here you get a great slab of the stuff, sweetened with shredded apple and pineapple, served on a bed of parsley and spinach. Beautifully seared, this not only melted in my mouth, but melted my heart. Superb.
For mains, it's filet de poisson (27,000 won) and filet de boeuf (28,000 won). The fish comes on a bed of ratatouille with lentils, offsetting the saltiness of the white meat. Oh, and for an extra frisson of flavor, there is some aniseed in there somewhere. The beef isn't quite as good: It's served on a bed of lettuce, red cabbage and mushrooms, and this, combined with the red wine and parsley in the sauces, overpowers the meat.
The wine list is encouraging, with plenty of bottles in the 30-, 40- and 50,000 won range. France gets two pages; the rest of the world, one. House selections are a Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon, medium body, rich, spicy and warming, and a William Ferre Chablis, cool, sharp and light. Both very workmanlike.
Finally, desserts are called for. Vanilla souffle (11,000 won) is delightfully light and fluffy -- with just the subtlest hint of vanilla -- but it pales in comparison with our second choice. Fondant Chocolate (8,000 won) is a mound of semi-melted dark chocolate, served with a hand-made basil ice cream. Sinfully, wickedly, decadently delicious, this alone makes the drive from Seoul worthwhile.
Of course, nowhere is perfect. Our dishes arrive haphazardly -- perhaps due to there being only one classically trained chef toiling in the kitchen.
But considering the quality of the fare, this is a minor quibble: Sauces would earn a smile from Ducasse, presentation would bring a tear to Monet's eye and portions would challenge Napoleon's trouser buttons. Service by Madame Park is graceful -- and admirably child-friendly (kid's menus are available if you call ahead).
And while Le Carre isn't cheap, its quality is outstanding and its portions are generous. Its only competitor in terms of quality and class is L'Amitier in Seoul's Cheongdam-dong.
Verdict: Classic French, with just the right degree of personal creativity, from a chef-owner with an appropriate pedigree. We aren't in the business of handing out Michelin stars. But if we were, this place would be in line for one.
by Andrew Salmon