A garden of culinary enjoymentWhen the restaurants collectively known as Garden Life, located atop a new downtown department store, opened in November, so did a new chapter in Korean dining.
Garden Life was conceived by the restaurateur Shin Sung-soon, who has created more than 70 restaurants around the world. Shortly before opening Garden Life, Mr. Shin received the Japan Commercial Space Design Award for designing After the Rain, a Thai restaurant in southern Seoul. Mr. Shin was the first foreign national to claim the prestigious award in Japan.
When planning Garden Life, which houses several distinct restaurants in one space, Mr. Shin had both expats and sophisticated Korean diners in mind, he says.
The complex covers a spacious 470 pyeong (1,550 square meters), the entire sixth floor of Lotte Young Plaza, the new Myeongdong department store targeting young Koreans. As its name might suggest, Garden Life features luscious and aromatic plants, tropical trees and artificial waterfalls, refreshing elements in the middle of Seoul’s concrete jungle. There is also tasteful modern art worthy of the city’s proud gallery proprietors; along with Paik Nam-june’s behemoth titled “Post TV Garden,” Garden Life is exhibiting experimental video artwork by eight young artists until Feb. 18.
Below an exposed industrial ceiling are Garden Life’s five restaurants (and a florist), featuring a variety of menus and price ranges: Sommerset Cafe (sandwiches, pizza and beverages), Busy Hanako (sushi bar), United (Asian noodle bar), Wakamatsu (Japanese hot pot and meat barbecue) and Roti (burger, steak and wine bar). Centered around the open cafe, the restaurants are divided by red brick walls, waterfalls and trees.
Sushi lovers can sit around Busy Hanako’s aluminum bar for kaiten sushi, tempting morsels served on a conveyor that slowly circles the bar. Prices range from 1,300 won ($6.50) to 5,000 won. Upon request, the Korean sushi chef, Mr. Woo, will prepare sushi to order on the spot. A colleague and I sampled ikura, buri, tobitko, toro and other pieces. The bill for two was reasonable, coming in under 33,000 won.
Garden Life’s two other Asian restaurants are United, the pan-Asian noodle restaurant, which serves inexpensive, popular noodle dishes of all kinds (see the separate review at right), and Wakamatsu, which specializes in fancier Japanese fare, cooked at the table: shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot), sukiyaki (Japanese-style meat and vegetables fried in rice wine and soy sauce) and yakiniku (Japanese meat barbecue).
Wakamatsu, which means “young pine tree,” is one of the few restaurants in Korea where diners are greeted and served by kimono-clad waitresses. The sight of real kimonos already makes you feel like you’re in a special place ―but relax, the dishes are reasonably affordable.
Our waitress said Wakamatsu serves Kansai-style (Kobe, to be precise) sukiyaki (20,000 won per person), meaning the sauce, made from sweet rice wine and soy sauce, is pre-mixed, and the meat and vegetables are cooked in the sauce a few pieces at a time. The sirloin is not from world-famous Kobe, but the thinly sliced beef strips are beautifully marbled in bloody red and creamy white; when cooked, they curl nicely, and offer succulent flavor and texture.
Cooked with the beef is a gorgeous plate of vegetables, including shungiku (edible leafy chrysanthemum), shiitake and enoki mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, konyaku (devil’s tongue jelly) and tofu slices. Fry each ingredient in the pan the way you like it, and gently coat it with whipped raw egg, the dipping sauce for sukiyaki. Every morsel of this ritual is wonderfully Japanese and delicious.
Good companions to this wholesome meal are Korean OB draft beer (3,500 won), Japanese beer (8,000-10,000 won) and sake (prices vary). At the end, plump udon noodles are simmered in the tasty brown broth you’ve been cooking all along. During lunch, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Wakamatsu serves simpler sets for less than 12,000 won.
Roti is an elegant American-style bistro, featuring a beautiful red-brick bar glistening with crystal wine glasses, a mahogany lounge area and a local deejay churning out trendy lounge music.
We tried Roti’s recommendations: apple and blue cheese pecan salad (7,000 won), the cheeseburger (8,200 won) and smoked salmon tortilla rolls (8,500 won). The salad is nothing out of the ordinary, dominated by iceberg lettuce dressed lightly in herb and olive oil. The burger and the tortilla come with wedge-cut French fries sprinkled with parsley flakes; ours were a bit too soft. The burger, stacked with meat, onion, pickle and tomato, is tasty but small; the tortilla, stuffed with salmon, tomato and lettuce, would suit women on a diet. A glass of house wine costs 6,000 won.
Sommerset Cafe is a cozy, anytime rest area for shoppers and diners, serving decent coffee (4,000 won) with free refills. The French farm-style crusty bread specked with raisins (3,900 won) is delicious, especially slathered with creamy butter.
Try the Italian gelato (2,500 won for one scoop; 3,300 won for two), available in 14 flavors. Our favorites: green apple and rum-and-raisin. It’s low in calories, refreshingly light and natural and memorably delicious.
English menu: Available.
Location: 6th floor of Lotte Young Plaza in Myeongdong.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Telephone: Sommerset Cafe, 02-2118-5364~5; Roti, 02-2118-5366~7; Busy Hanako, 02-2118-5362~3; Wakamatsu, 02-2118-5360~1; United, 02-2118-5368~9.
Parking: Free up to two hours at Lotte Department Store.
Dress code: Smart casual.
Second opinion: “You forget about the day’s worries. You go there and unwind. Consistently good.” ― Agnes Penney, Seoul
by Ines Cho