A restaurant we’d almost rather not tell you aboutYou know a place is good when even the secret police are expressing interest. It is Saturday evening, and we are trying to park outside the prime minister’s residence in Samcheong-dong. As we trundle towards a space, a fit-looking young gent in crewcut appears and briskly motions us to roll down the window. “Can’t park here,” he growls. “But we are just going to a restaurant,” says the wife, with a big smile and flutter of the eyelids. “Oh ― which one?” asks our man, interest piqued. “A Table,” we reply.
“A lot of people have been asking about that,” he muses. “It’s down the alley there.” After a second he adds, kindly, “OK, you can park here,” and ushers us to a space.
No question: Korea is changing for the better.
“A Table” (do I need to translate?) is down a narrow alley in this attractive, tree-lined district to the northeast of Gyeongbok Palace. It is a little place, in a converted traditional house, a couple of doors down from a marionette shop. Inside, it is bright; one large window overlooks the street, while a slit window offers views of kimchi pots and branches outside. Walls are plain white, floor is dark stone. There are only four tables, plus one more in a semi-private room in the back. Tables are clothed in muslin, with flowers providing a splash of color. Overall, it is chic but pretty. Aural ambience is provided by some of the best restaurant music I can recall: French blues. Diners are predominantly young couples.
There is only one menu, scrawled on a blackboard: a six-course dinner set (changes daily). Naturally, we plunge in. First up is snail gratin in a tomato cup, served on a bed of mashed potato with cheese. It proves very, er, cheesy. Now, with a gratin and cheese spud, you would expect this, but in many Korean restaurants, cheese has an odd tendency toward tastelessness. Here, I am pleased to report that is not the case. A promising start.
Next is tuna on pastry and side salad. The tuna is fine and chunky, and is served with tasty little red tropical peppercorns and a cheese and spinach touille (a savory snack ― rather like a large nacho). All fine, except for one minor complaint: an excess of balsamic vinegar on the salad.
Third course is mushroom soup. Usually when one encounters the words “cream of mushroom soup,” one heads for an exit: canned blandness is to be expected, especially in the capital’s innumerable donkatsu (pork cutlet) houses. Here, the soup arrives in a lidded tureen, includes chopped, fresh mushrooms and is thoughtfully accompanied by a pepper shaker. While not as tasty as the preceding courses, it is certainly a giant among Seoul mushroom soups.
Things get heavier with the next course: filet of mero in clear butter and caper sauce, on a bed of spinach. This is a nicely presented dish of yellows, whites and greens. The fish itself is superb: chunks of fresh, clean white flesh in oily sauce, with an authentic fisherman’s flavor. For me, this was the standout dish.
Next comes a palate cleanser: a raspberry sorbet. A simple, crunchy mix of ice and berry juice, this sets the scene for the penultimate course: tenderloin. This proves to be small, tender chunks of beef on asparagus and mushroom, served with four sauces in pots: a wine sauce, a Dijon mustard, a grain mustard and garlic cream. And yes, they know how to cook a steak rare (an uncommon skill in Seoul, for some reason). Finally, dessert is creme brulee (burnt cream); a soft and not overly sweet version, with caramelized sugar on top.
Wine list is an unpretentious three-pager of moderately priced French varietals. In consideration of the spring-like weather, we order a Tavel E Guigal 2002 at 44,000 won ($37.50). This Rhone rose is strong and dry, yet fruity, and is adaptable enough to match most of the menu. Those classic French throat ticklers orangina, pastis, kir and even apple cider are also offered.
Now, you are, of course, asking: How much? Answer, not counting the wine: 45,000 won (plus 10-percent VAT). Yes, let’s double-check: 45,000 won. I don’t need to tell you this is excellent value; south of the river, you would be paying double. Menu changes daily depending on what is at the markets ― chef Kim Byung-gil visits every morning ― but remains in the same basic price range. Lunch is 20,000 to 30,000 won.
I should add that the restaurant gets its cutlery right, and that even the wine glasses have a musical tone when clinked. Service is pleasant, and the chef ― who learned his trade at the posher L’Abri ― makes a point of coming out of the kitchen to meet punters. “I want to keep the food humble and simple, so Koreans can approach it easily,” he says. “French food is not just haute cuisine.” Amen.
Verdict: This is exactly the kind of place I am tempted not to write about: when you stumble across a find like this, you keep it to yourself. But a restaurant critic has to earn his crust. With such hearty fare, in such attractive surroundings, at such affordable prices, I would say that Itaewon’s famed St. Ex has serious competition at last.
English: Not spoken.
English menu: None (French available).
Location: In Samcheong-dong, behind the Woori Bank building on the main street. Simpler directions might be: In the alley directly across from the entrance to the prime minister’s residence.
Hours: Noon-3 p.m and 6-10 p.m. daily. Closed Sundays starting in April.
Telephone: 736-1048. Reservations essential.
Web site: www.atable.co.kr
Parking: On the street.
by Andrew Salmon