French for the masses, and the other kindFrench cuisine may offer the world’s finest dishes, but sniffing them out in Seoul is a hell of a task: French restaurants not only lack the numbers of their Italian counterparts, they also seem to lack the staying power.
Take Le Caree (“The Square”). Once a fine feature of the Gyeonggi province dining scene, it closed with promises of reopening in Seoul. Finally, after more than a year’s hiatus, it re-materialized last December in southern Cheongdam-dong.
Or take Itaewon’s La Cigale (“The Cicada”), which seems to close and reopen under a new name every 15 minutes. It closed its doors at the end of last year, only to reopen with a new design, a larger kitchen, a new menu and a new name: La Cigale Montmartre.
These establishments are at different ends of the French dining spectrum. Le Caree, discreetly hidden in the heart of the capital’s most exclusive dining district, offers haute cuisine for Seoul’s most delicate palates. La Cigale Montmartre is a street-side, bar-bistro style place, offering low- and medium-priced dishes to the hungry burghers of the 'Won. One north of the river -― one south. One for the elite ― one for the masses. How do they stack up?
Le Caree’s dining room has plain ivory walls, with matching tablecloths and crockery. There are covered candles on the tables, a large floor-to-ceiling wine rack at the end and piano over the speakers. But the key point to note is that there are a total of six tables.
Menu is equally simple: chef’s sets only, and no a la carte. For lunch, this is a six-courser, at 88,000 won ($75); for dinner, you have a choice of 88,000 won for eight courses, or nine courses for 118,000 won. That’s it.
We begin with a generous swill of the house white ― an excellent William Ferre 2001 Chablis (15,000 won/glass), offering a light, complex taste. Then food arrives. First, a plate of amuse bouches (delicate snacks designed to “amuse your mouth”), including salmon and caviar croutons, creamed tuna and olive croutons, pastry sticks and pastry with cream cheese. All freshly prepared, delicate and delightful. Soup is French onion, sweet and thick.
The next course is even better ― roast foie gras in red currant sauce, topped with shredded apple, on a bed of spinach and caramelized apple. Quite delicious. Main is sea bass or tenderloin; the latter is a considerable hunk of cattle in red wine, served on a bed of red cabbage, in a rich wine sauce with pine mushrooms. The house red, a Chateau Fort Lignac Haut Medoc 1998, is silky and delicate, and a great accompaniment. The next course is a refreshing change of pace: cold lobster in gazpacho. While the lobster, accompanied by pureed avocado, is fine, it is outdone by the little pastry parcels of crab meat accompanying it. Pastries here are very obviously a specialty.
A cheese platter is a rare treat in Korea: we try goat cheese, a bleu, a brie and a couple of slices of salami. A vanilla souffle, dusted with icing sugar and served with green tea ice cream and wafers, wraps the thing up.
Despite the excellence of the dishes, we ended up bloated; this is not, God be thanked, nouvelle cuisine. Oh, did I mention that we had the 88,000 won menu? While I would not usually consider that a reasonable price for a meal anywhere, considering the quality of ingredients and preparation, plus the quantity ― yes, this is that rare place that will satisfy both gourmets and gourmands ― one simply cannot argue with the value. Service is professional and friendly, and in a location this size, you are never out of sight.
Verdict: Once in a while, one comes across a traditional restaurant that cuts no corners, makes no concessions to the trends of the day and offers exemplary grub. When it comes to French food in Seoul, Le Caree is that place; I will venture out on a limb here and say that this is the finest French cuisine in town.
La Cigale Montmartre
The walls of the newly expanded La Cigale Montmartre’s bar area are crimson, a la “Folies Bergere,” and decorated with dozens of colorful ads from the racy Paris of (I would guess) the ’20s and ’30s. Behind this is the raised dining area, which curves all the way around behind the kitchen, offering those so inclined a touch of seclusion. (Unfortunately, it also offers seclusion from service ― as we were to discover.) The makeover has resulted in a wider-ranging menu, offering two themes: Provencal specialties (La Cigale) and Parisian bistro fare (Montmartre).
We begin with charcuterie (cold cuts; 18,000 won). This arrives on a huge platter, stacked up with cold meats, lettuce, boiled egg and a range of pastries. This unexpected variety proves to be a mixed blessing. The raw ham, pate and salami are fine, but the stuffed pastries are dire ― ice-cold (obviously straight out of the fridge), and made with sweet pastry, rather than the savory pastry demanded. I can only assume that these are leftovers added as a freebie and an afterthought. The second starter, cod aioli (garlic mayonnaise; 14,000 won), is rather more successful. This comes in a mound, on a tasty ratatouille, with cubed potatoes and a mild aioli, the latter a little weak.
Things plummet again with the chicken fricasse (17,000). It is a large serving, on a bed of tagliatelle, but it is overly sweet and is served lukewarm. The Provencal omelette (14,000 won), on the other hand, is outstanding. This boasts tuna, eggplant, basil, capsicums and anchovies. Strong and salty, it is served with fries. Omelettes being virtually unobtainable anywhere else in Seoul, this gets a thumbs-up. Another dish which is a rarity in Seoul is beef tartar, or minced raw beef (25,000 won). I was a little disappointed that it was not mixed at the table ― personally, I would have preferred a touch more paprika and pepper ― but the beef itself is fine, it comes with fries, and is the largest serving of this delicacy I have had anywhere.
Finally, profiteroles (cream puffs with chocolate sauce; 9,000 won). These are served cold with a hot, thick sauce: simple, sinful, splendid. We stuck with bar drinks throughout the meal ― there is a good range of European bottled beers ― but a wine list is available, with a good selection in the 40,000-won range.
Verdict: Service is problematic. Although the waitresses are friendly, if you are in the “romantic” area around the back you are certainly out of sight, and possibly out of mind. We had to get up and walk around the corner for attention on two occasions. But for informal French dining, this is definitely worth a look, especially as they are serving dishes which are notably absent from the menus of competing Seoul establishments, and arrive in generous portions. (As a postscript, I should add that I dined here once again on the day of writing. I found the lunchtime omelettes excellent, the huge bowls of mussels looked recommendable and, as I was in plain sight near the front, service was flawless.)
English: Some spoken.
Menu: Korean and French.
Telephone: (02) 3445-7661.
Directions: If you’re in front of the landmark Cine City cinema in Cheongdam-dong, proceed down the side road to the right of the cinema. After about 50 meters, you’ll come to a Kraze Burger restaurant; turn right here. Proceed for 20 meters or so, and turn right down the narrow alley, in which Le Carre is discreetly tucked away.
Hours: Lunch, noon-3 p.m.; dinner, 6-11 p.m. (last orders by 8 p.m.) Closed 1st and 3d Mondays of each month, and national holidays.
Dress: Formal or smart casual.
Menu: English and French.
Telephone: (02) 796-1244.
Directions: Facing Hamilton Hotel on the main Itaewon street, it’s about 50 meters to your right, on the same side of the street.
Hours: Opens at noon; last orders at 10:30 p.m. Closed for lunch on national holidays.
Parking: None available.
by Andrew Salmon