Light eating for a ‘green’ lifestyleThe best promotion a restaurant can get is man’s oldest (and freest of charge) means of communication: word of mouth.
“I heard Market O is good,” Selina, a fashion executive working in Cheongdam-dong, told me. Her boss had heard the same thing. So the three of us decided to check it out together.
Our reservation was for 8 p.m., a late dinner by Korean standards. But when we arrived, five minutes after eight, we were told to wait because the people at our table hadn’t finished. Two other groups were waiting for their tables too. We sat at the bar and ended up chatting, forgetting to order wine. By the time we were seated, it was 8:30, and we were amazed by how crowded the place was.
Compared to other trendy spots in Apgujeong-dong, where the design overwhelms the food (and the diners), Market O strikes one as a nothing-fancy place. Simple brown furniture is set against a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on one side of the room. In one corner is a compact, supermarket-style display of fresh vegetables ― tomatoes, avocados, lettuce, lemons and more ― enveloped in soft white mist.
The menu, bearing colorful photographs of the food, is divided into green vegetables, rice, noodles and grill. Every ingredient is supposedly organic, hence the restaurant’s full name: Market O, the Organic Cuisine.
The carpaccio dishes feature lots of fresh greens served with fruit, tofu or seared tuna. We ordered tofu carpaccio, for 11,500 won ($9.70). A young chef in crisp whites sliced a box of soft tofu into squares and served it with fresh arugula, lettuce, alfalfa and watercress, with a creamy sesame and grape seed dressing drizzled over it. This combination was refreshing, delicious and very light; it would become our regular starter. To accompany it, we ordered the house wine (7,500 won), an Australian Chardonnay.
We followed this with a plate of baked scallop California roll (12,500 won). This looks complicated, but it’s basically a rice roll topped with baked scallops and tobiko, the delicate flying-fish caviar, and garnished with alfalfa leaves. Inside the roll is tender crabmeat, cucumber and avocado. This is a fancier rendition of the sort of roll that can appeal to just about anybody, and it doesn’t take an epicure to appreciate a simple dish made from fresh, foolproof ingredients.
By now, the creative gene has been stimulated in all three of us, and we want more of these simple pleasures. The waiter recommended the traditional Japanese pan-fried noodle, yaki soba (12,500 won), and hot and spicy Chinese pasta (14,500 won). Neither was out of the ordinary; such dishes seem to cater to diners who expect the familiar.
The uni soba (16,500 won) was so good that I didn’t feel like sharing: cold buckwheat noodles with greens topped with delicious, tender uni, or raw sea urchin. Soba is typically served with a savory, sweet dipping sauce, made from soy sauce, rice wine and fish and vegetable stock; Market O uses a diluted version of this sauce as the soup. “The soba dipping sauce is too condensed and strong, so we made it lighter and topped it with the gourmet’s favorite, uni,” the chef, Woo Jeung-oh, later explained.
On another visit, the uni soba was sold out, so my guests and I tried tagliatelle in black soy milk (13,500 won), a creamy, grey sauce made from black bean and soy. It was unusual and tasty, but we would have preferred our uni soba fix. (Some popular items do sell out early.)
The creative force behind the Market O formula is the restaurateur Noh Hee-young, a nouvelle cuisine pioneer in Korea and the author of a cookbook of simple fusion dishes made with fresh ingredients. Market O serves a number of samplers from the book. “I prefer excellently prepared snacks to shabbily done main dishes, so the food at Market O is basically high-end gourmet snacks,” Ms. Noh said. She substitutes lighter ingredients in many of her recipes ― soy milk and olive oil for heavy cream and butter, for instance.
Reservations are highly recommended, as word of mouth seems to have spread north of the river. A few days later, a colleague who rarely visits Gangnam told me she was going out to dinner with friends, and said, “I heard Market O is good.”
English: Some spoken.
English menu: Available.
Hours: 10 a.m.-noon and 5:30-10 p.m. daily.
Location: Second floor of Bosung Building in Apgujeong-dong, opposite California Fitness Center.
Telephone: (02) 548-5090.
Dress code: Smart casual.
Second opinion: “The food is surprisingly light and delicious.” -- Jung Hoon, a Gangnam gallery curator.
by Ines Cho