Classy classic Korean cuisine served with a mother’s careBefore taking over the French cafe Cafe de Flora in 1997, Kim Young-hee said she was “just an ordinary housewife who cooked for her husband and children at home.”
The cafe became the hallmark of French chic in Cheongdam-dong, and in 1999 she opened Seasons, a Japanese fusion restaurant opposite the cafe. That restaurant, with tastefully simple food, soon became a much-copied success in the Korean dining scene.
Last month, when Ms. Kim opened Petit Seasons, specializing in classic Korean cuisine, aspiring restaurateurs sneaked in notebooks and cameras to take note of its food, taste and presentation. Petit Seasons is just downstairs from Seasons.
Now you know that Ms. Kim is no ordinary housewife. Born and raised in Seoul, she married into a wealthy family that had emigrated from Pyeongyang. One of her filial duties for the past 30 years has been to cook Korean feasts for guests from abroad. “My family couldn’t introduce elegant Korean foods to sophisticated foreigners because going out to typical Korean restaurants was all about getting greasy and smelly over a meat barbecue,” Ms. Kim says.
Petit Seasons is a spacious restaurant with scarlet walls, wooden floors and open windows on all sides. By day, it’s casually chic; by evening, when all the lights are lit, the place feels like an exotic lounge for hour-long conversations over wine.
But the food is Korean cuisine using classic recipes and authentic sauces, while the presentation is surprisingly modern and beautiful. Instead of Korean soju, Ms. Kim suggests a new way to enjoy Korean foods: with a bottle of Chilean 2001 Montes Alpha Chardonnay or 2000 Montes Alpha Merlot.
Wine is poured into hand-carved crystal glasses and each dish is served in beautifully coordinated jade-green celadon or golden brassware. The presentation is divinely impressive. Ms. Kim encourages her guests to take their time in order to enjoy what they taste as well as what they see.
Natives of Seoul with upper-class backgrounds have made a big deal about the painstakingly prepared gomyeong, or decorative toppings. Colorful gomyeong, made of finely sliced vegetables, eggs, meat or nuts, is found on top of almost every dish, and such refinement reminds you of delicate filigree motifs found in Italian floral lace.
The slices of jellied cake, or pyeon, are artistically marbled with tempting colors: brown of finely chopped shiitake mushrooms and beef, yellow of egg yolks, and ivory of pine nuts. They are served on a cold, roughly cut slab of a ceramic artwork.
The cold-cut beef, alfalfa sprouts, slices of dried dates and a paper-thin slice of lemon are tied together with Korean parsley. Served with mustard dipping sauce, they look and taste like a small but sweet gift of maternal love.
Nokdujeon, hot patties made from mung beans, are extra-crispy on the outside, but tender and savory inside.
Yukhoe, or Korean-style tartar, is served on a pile of ice cubes, lemon slices and a lotus leaf. It looks picture perfect and tastes superbly delicate. The tangy lemon juice seeps through the red meat seasoned with crushed pine nuts and sesame oil.
Most dishes are authentic Seoul fare, but keen epicures can notice a North Korean influence as side dishes include bossam kimchi, a cabbage kimchi made in the shape of a bundle. The kimchi, devoid of its typical stench of aged fish, is fresh and tasty, complementing the main course, beef soup and scorched rice.
Main dishes these days include bibimbab, or assorted vegetables over rice, highlighting spring buds, and galchi jorim, or braised hairtail fish in spicy sauce. “Korean summer offers the best seafood from the south, which I like to cook Korean-style,” Ms. Kim says. Dinner specials include blue crab from the west coast that is served either deep-fried or fresh with Korean seasonings.
At Petit Seasons, only the season’s freshest ingredients or Ms. Kim’s personal favorites are cooked. Preparation for such feasts isn’t easy, requiring 10 chefs to toil every day. Because so much labor is involved, the restaurant is available by reservation only, and for just 30 diners each meal. The lucky ones to get reservations are treated to Ms. Kim’s not-so-ordinary culinary arts.
by Ines Cho
Petit Seasons is at 95-16 Cheongdam-dong and is open from noon to 3 p.m. and from 6 to 11 p.m. daily. Lunch-course meals start at 25,000 won ($21), dinner at 70,000 won. A glass of house wine starts at 7,000 won; a bottle of wine 50,000 won. For reservations, call (02) 546-6732.