A Yen for interesting fusionsNam Kyung-phyo once worked as an assistant chef in a upscale restaurant in Ueno, Japan. “When a batch of fresh seafood was delivered to the kitchen early in the morning, I commented on how incredibly fresh everything was,” he recalls. “My Japanese boss replied, ‘Of course! It’s from Korea!’”
At Mr. Nam’s new Seoul restaurant, Yen, which specializes in Japanese-based fusion dishes, the daily supply of fresh seafood comes from a private distribution channel the chef says is reserved for downtown salons frequented by Korean politicians. “The cream of the crop is first sent to private restaurants in downtown Seoul and Tokyo, so ordinary shoppers will never get a chance to buy it,” he boasts.
Yen, which opened in April in Sinsa-dong in southern Seoul, is Mr. Nam’s fourth project on the capital’s fiercely competitive dining scene. Reservations several days in advance are strongly recommended, because it’s usually packed for lunch and dinner. The interior offers understated poshness: soft, brown furniture and an arboreal motif. “I wanted elements of nature to be there,” Mr. Nam says, pointing at a miniature stream that runs the length of a long table.
Many diners at Yen start with tuna salad served with garden greens. This colorful dish is visually tempting and delicious. Small slabs of raw tuna are lightly seared in black peppercorn sauce ― tataki, in Japanese ― until extra tender, and served with a perfect balance of mustard sauce and raspberry sauce. The topping, lightly toasted brown garlic flakes, adds a crunchy texture and a toasty flavor.
For fish, Mr. Nam recommends halibut marinated in a special soy sauce (18,000 won) ($15), or mero misoyaki (24,000 won), which is grilled Japanese sea bass. The sauce for the halibut is made from radish, bonito flakes, rice wine and other ingredients.
The miso, or traditional Japanese bean paste, is spiked with Korean miso; the Korean version, which is fermented longer, yields a much deeper flavor, tinged with a bit of spice. Hot codfish cooked in Korean-style red pepper sauce (22,000 won) is another creative recipe. Fresh, aromatic rocket leaves on top of the spicy fish make for a truly delicious fusion-style combination.
A number of fusion restaurants in Seoul have copied the Yen steak (27,000 won), but none can match the original. It is a charcoal-grilled beefsteak in teriyaki sauce, served with toasted garlic flakes, watercress, grilled onion and slices of jalapeno peppers, and sprinkled with mustard and soy sauce. The meat comes from a farm in Gangwon province on Korea’s east coast, where local cows, called maegu, are fed beer, which is supposed to improve the meat. At upscale department stores in southern Seoul, a kilogram of maegu sirloin can cost as much as 90,000 won.
Marinated eggplant with sea urchin roe (17,000 won) is perhaps the most creative dish Mr. Nam has ever made. The tender pieces of eggplant, marinated in sweet bonito soy sauce, work surprisingly well with a morsel of extremely tender, fresh sea urchin roe, a pricey seasonal delicacy that’s normally served atop sushi or alone. Elated diners have been seen drinking up the leftover sauce from this dish.
Options for the last course before dessert include steamed rice topped with assorted fish roe and shredded lettuce, or spicy yaki udon, pan-fried Japanese noodles (15,000 won). The plump noodles, pan-fried with bite-sized beef, squid, shrimp and octopus, arrive sizzling on the table with brown flakes on top, twisting and curling as though they were alive. Don’t ask the waiter if they are. Bonito flakes are so dry and light that the steam from the noodles makes them move. Those who ordered the rice dish will find flying fish roe popping and sliced vegetables crunching inside the mouth.
The last course is a dessert served with coffee; a small bowl of citron sherbet (5,000 won) leaves the palate clean and refreshed.
To go with the meal, diners can choose white, red wine or Japanese sake. A glass of house wine costs 10,000 won.
For December, Mr. Nam plans to prepare fresh oysters from Korea’s South Sea, and abalone served in a soup or salad.
In the long run, he says, he hopes to open Yen in Paris. Once he figures out a way to bring Korea’s best ingredients with him, he says, he’ll consider it his challenge to make his Yen as popular as Japanese currency there.
English menu available
Telephone: (02) 542-3186
Location: Sinsa-dong, near Hosan Hospital.
Subway: Apgujeong station
Hours: Daily (except Sundays), 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
and 5:30-10 p.m.
Credit cards: Accepted
Attire: Smart casual
by Ines Cho