First-class French cuisine in the Kyobo BuildingAh, French grub. However volubly the Italians insist on their own eminence, it is the French who take pride of place at the head of the European culinary canon. But while Italian restaurants are relatively easy to hunt down in Seoul, decent French remains thin on the ground. There is Itaewon’s St. Ex, a couple of pricey joints south of the river ― and then there is Kyobo’s L’abri (“Shelter”). Established in 1986, this is one of the city’s most venerable foreign restaurants (in a city where “since 2000” denotes real longevity, “since 1986” is virtual antiquity).
Location is terrific ― slap bang in the middle of downtown. Interior isn’t. Colorful wall drapes, wallpaper with italic calligraphy, a large wooden cheese board and a standing glass cellar are tasteful enough, but cannot disguise the plain, blocky design of the building. Serious-looking chaps in smart blue suits glide hither and yon in discreet silence; the waiters, you say? L’abri has the hushed atmosphere of a convent ― the “culinary temple” approach some French take to their victuals is reproduced here.
The menu is more promising. There is an encouraging “back-to-basics” feel about this extensive, trilingual document. Good selection of vinos, too; most in the 50-130,000 won range ($43-$113), plus half a dozen numbers going for a tenner a glass. There is a fair a la carte, and sets for 55,000, 70,000 and 98,000 won. Being paupers, it has to be the 55,000 set for us.
To begin: What could be more Gallic than snails? The wrigglers here are excellent, garlicky little chaps, served on thin strips of delightfully light pastry. Pastry is also a feature of the wife’s seafood bisque ― which, mes amis, is one hell of a soup. A thick, rich stew covered with a pastry cap, this offers flavors that the miserly, thin bisques of the hotels cannot compete with. A must.
Next comes the house salad, which, with fresh orange included, is light and no doubt very healthy, but a touch dull. Salads? Pah! To the mains.
Ribeye with Roquefort is a thick brick of steak (and oui, chefy here does, indeed, know to leave well enough alone and cook it rare). The sauce seems a bit weak ― until I spot the cheese croquette on the side. Aha! There you are! Inside the croquette is the Roquefort ― a splendidly powerful cheese. For those who do not appreciate macho cheese, it can be kept aside; for real culinary pilgrims, it cannot be ignored. Not only do we have an excellent piece of cow here, but the chef is not afraid to put some real cheese on the plate ― a rarity in Seoul. For her, grilled mero with herb crust, a chunk of white fish. It is lemony, with a light, hollandaise-style white sauce offering some subtle flavors. Not bad.
Wine? But of course. For me (steak) it is a glass of Chilean Baron Philippe de Rothschild Merlot 2000 (10,000 won per glass): deep purple in color, a fruits-of-the-forest nose and a whiff of wood smoke somewhere in the background. For her (fish), it is a Chateauneuf de Pape Saint Benoit 2000 (10,000 won per glass). This Provencal producer is better known for its reds, but this is one ballsy white: a strong, flowery bouquet, a heavy, oily body, a bit of pear in the mouth and a sharp, citrusy aftertaste. The strength of the grape gives it the muscle of a New World wine, but the complexity confirms that it is, indeed, French. Quite a wine.
Finally, dessert arrives in the form of green tea ice cream with dark chocolate swizzles, black cherries and vanilla ice cream. What more could one ask for? Well, coffee or tea, and yes, that is available too.
Service is quiet and impeccably professional. We visited on a weekend, and had remarkably attentive service; things may be busier on weekday lunches and evenings, when L’abri offers pre-performance dinners (the Sejong Cultural Center is just across the road). Very popular with the besuited business and diplomatic crowds, hence the discreet atmosphere.
Verdict: My only real kick against this place is the formal ambience; a display of Gallic, table-pounding joie de vivre would be frowned upon, one feels. But the food is first-class, and even with a 10-percent value-added tax on the meal, it is a fair value considering quality and quantity. If you are a gourmet who can restrain yourself, this is worth a visit.
Address: Kyobo Building, 2d floor.
Credit Cards: Accepted
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5;30-9:30 p.m.; wine bar until midnight
Reservations recommended for lunch
by Andrew Salmon