New wave with classical appealChinese cuisine is reclaiming its roots in Korea after centuries of catering to the peninsula’s palate. Side dishes of kimchi are being replaced by savory braised beef tendon, sliced marinated jellyfish and transluscent 1,000-year-old eggs.
The next few months are expected to bring a blizzard of new restaurants specializing in authentic Chinese cuisine.
The first of this new wave, Toh Lim, opened this week atop the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul. Its dishes, decoration and presentation set a new standard for Chinese restaurants, the best of which have been growing in sophistication in recent years.
Toh Lim, which refers to a utopian peach-blossom garden in ancient China, boasts a sleek interior highlighted with dark woods and mother-of-pearl covering its walls, lampshades and plates. It has an elegant tea bar and an open kitchen where its chefs can be seen chopping and stir-frying through curved glass panels. Its exterior windows provide another type of drama, overlooking the city from the 37th floor.
The restaurant’s stylish presentation extends all the way to its chopsticks: Guests can purchase engraved chopsticks made by Christolfle, the French tableware company, for their personal use at Toh Lim. Membership in the Christofle Chopstick Club is limited to 130 customers paying 65,000, 90,000 and 120,000 won ($55, $75, $100) for the privledge.
Toh Lim serves traditional Cantonese, Beijing, Sichuan and Shanghai cuisines, with the dishes reflecting the light, refined touch of the kitchen’s Hong Kong-trained chefs.
Chef Chan Chi-keung and dim sum chef Ip Chun-wai were born in Hong Kong, and have worked in leading restaurants in the territory and in mainland China.
The braised shark’s fin (76,000 won for regular size) is served in a light, cream-colored broth , accompanied with fresh bean sprouts and cilantro. Dipped in vinegar, the shark’s fin is extra tender and savory.
Live seasonal seafood (80,000-120,000 won) is prepared simply, to allow the taste of the fish take precedence. Lobster, for instance, can be stir-fried Szechuan style ― with red and green pepper and a light black bean and garlic sauce ― and served in a lettuce leaf cup. Grouper might be steamed, draped with scallion slivers and cilantro, and bathed with a Shanghai soy-vinegar sauce. And sauteed abalone can be combined with black moss in a Cantonese inflected chicken-and-soy broth.
Dim sum at Toh Lim is superb, elegant in presentation and delicate in taste. Mr. Ip, the dim sum chef, notes a reason for the difference. “In Hong Kong restaurants, dim sum tastes rather bland because diners like a clean taste. In Korea, people prefer their dim sum to be seasoned,” he says.
There are unlimited variations in dim sum, particularly in Hong Kong where the cuisine has been influenced by Eastern and Western cooking for more than a century. “I plan to start with a few ingredients ― shrimp, beef and fish ― that are familiar to Koreans and then introduce more varieties in the future,” Mr. Ip says.
Toh Lim currently serves 15 kinds of dim sum which are steamed, deep fried, pan fried and roasted. The chef’s personal favorites are steamed Cantonese shrimp dumplngs and pork dumplings and Shanghainese pan-fried seafood rolls.
Dim sum lovers can enjoy a special dim sum lunch between noon and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The 35,000 won set includes a soup, all-you-can-eat dim sum, an entree and dessert with Chinese tea. The dim sum is prepared to order rather than in advance.
Toh Lim is the first restaurant in Korea to feature tea sommeliers. Like wine sommeliers, the specially trained staff selects teas to match the food. Toh Lim’s tea menu includes 30 kinds of green, red and black teas imported from China.
Diners should drink tea toward the end of the meal, rather than beginning, says sommelier Min Ji-hyun, because it enhances the taste of the food and also aids in the digestion of food.
With light dishes, such as shark’s fin soup, Ms. Min recommends green tea, and with fried or heavier dishes, she suggests Pu Erh black tea. After the meal or with dessert, she recommends Phoenix Tangchung, a type of oolong tea, that is fragrant and cleans the palate.
Or, for a surprise at the end of the meal, consider combining desserts and teas. Assorted tea sorbets (6,000 won) arrive at the table on an ivory tray with ceramic teapot silently spewing a cool stream of dry ice steam. It creates a lasting impression, perhaps of utopia, Chinese-style.
by Ines Cho
Toh Lim is open from noon to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. A full a la carte menu is available. Multicourse lunch sets cost between 38,000 and 63,000 won; dinner sets are 65,000 won to 155,000 won. For reservations, call (02) 317-7101.