Elegant, intimate dining amid Sinsa-dong’s glareImminent frost, skeletal trees, long, chilly nights ― yes, the season for cozy chats, lamplit ghost stories and, perhaps, secret romance is upon us again. For an atmosphere conducive to the above ― all within easy striking distance of the blare and bright lights of Sinsa-dong ― make your way to De Coree.
This establishment is set in a converted villa in a quiet back street lined with upscale residences, subdued restaurants and fashion houses. The forecourt is planted with bamboo, pine and persimmon trees, spotlit in the evening. Strategically placed candles and lamps add a gentle, haunting ambience. Walk up the steps and inside, and you are greeted by a parrot in an oriental cage. There are two main dining areas. One is a bright, glassed-in patio hung with white muslin overlooking the forecourt ― this would be ideal in summer.
The other is the dining room, which is more appropriate for the current season. It is hung with brown silk drapes; antique cabinets and paper windows add a period feel, while on the celadon-green walls are mounted a selection of sepia photos from late Joseon and early colonial-era Korea. A screened-off area at the far end has transplanted antique roof beams, and boasts a portrait of a turn-of-the-century kisaeng. It is cool but pretty with a capital P ― and boasts a proprietress to match.
The latter is an utterly charming and rather giggly creature: Kay Kim, one of Korea’s most renowned fashion designers, and, as the proprietress of the erstwhile Cafe de Coree, a restaurateur of some experience. “We were three and a half years in Apgujeong, but now we have moved to a cosier and more original location,” she purrs. No question: this is one of the most understatedly elegant dining rooms I have ever sat in, and the subdued lighting and flickering candles create an intimate atmosphere.
Food? “Koreans are too proud,” says Ms. Kim. “We have to mix with other cultures, but keep our originality; although the menu says fusion for the public, what I am trying to introduce here is future Korean food.” Well, perhaps: the menu does indeed offer a selection of updated traditional Korean specialties, but there is a very strong pan-Asian presence in both ingredients and dishes. There are set menus for 40,000, 50,000, 75,000 and 100,000 won. We choose a la carte.
First are spring rolls with mango sauce (13,000 won) ($11) and fresh vegetables with tuna and essence of sesame dressing (21,000 won). The spring rolls are nicely crisp with soft interiors; the sauce is a mix of (I think) yogurt and vinegar as well as the fruit, making for a refreshing blend. The “fresh vegetables” turn out to be a salad, and of the sesame, there is no hint ― but the dish is beautifully dressed with a citrus dressing, red peppercorns and drizzled wasabi cream. The slices of raw tuna are delicate and delicious.
For mains: barbecue smoked tenderloin with a red wine and soy sauce (30,000 won) and fried noodles with sea cucumber in oriental sauce (16,000 won). The beef is served on a huge iron plate akin to a wok, surrounded by lightly cooked vegetables: carrot, mashed potatoes, red and green peppers, onions and squash. The meat itself is pink and tender, and, being crusted with black peppercorns, highly tasty. The sauce is outstanding, like a very rich gravy; wine is much in evidence, and, we are told, one of the ingredients adding flavor is a traditional Korean paste. In both look and in taste, this dish is probably the closest thing to a very rich English roast I have come across in any Asian cuisine. The noodles are thick and handmade, in a very rich, sweet, Chinese-style sauce.
Finally, dessert. We order chocolate suzette with wafer (8,000 won) and fruit gelatin pine nuts (6,000 won). Again, the (English) menu is not entirely faithful to what we get. The first is a crepe with sweet pear filling (and no wafer), but drizzled with chocolate sauce. The second is actually jellied sujeongghwa (Korean cinnamon punch). Sujeongghwa is a treasure of Korean cuisine, and its jellification is an innovative touch ― “We are the first!” insists Ms. Kim.
De Coree offers a very eclectic four-page wine list (as well as a wine bar in the basement, complete with knocked-through walls and Mediterranean-style furnishings), with a good range of bottles in the 40,000-won-plus range. We try the house red (6,000 per glass). A Chilean cabernet merlot, this is dark, with a powerfully fruity nose, a light body and a spicy aftertaste.
Verdict: The English menu is a little misleading, but we have no complaints about the food itself. There is some sensible creativity at work here; dressings and sauces, in particular, are exceptional. Prices for this part of town are pretty fair, the wines are a bargain, and as we have noted, the ambience is certainly conducive to a touch of romance. Recommended? Certainly.
Sinsa-dong 624-17, Gangnam-gu
English menu; some English spoken
Hours: 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m. (last orders) daily. Brunch on Sundays.
Credit cards: Accepted.
Dress: Designer labels if you have ’em.
by Andrew Salmon