Fine Italian dining with a nod to styleA lot of new restaurants in Seoul look fancy but lack authenticity in concept. So when European furniture importer Kim Sun-yeop and interior decorator Kim Ji-hyun decided to open their dream restaurant in Cheongdam-dong near their office, they decided to serve their favorite foods in a space furnished with their favorite furniture, fabrics and lights.
Open the heavy bronze-and-glass door of Paul, the Italian grill and cafe, and walk past the sheer Etro fabric hung like a cloud of happiness. What greets you is a chair. Yes, a beautiful green-and-gold chair ― bearing the unforgettable, winking face of Lina Cavalieri, the mysterious woman featured in the famous Fornasetti furniture series.
Against the somber mahogany floor are Fornasetti screens and a deliciously bright orange wall that features a large, impressionistic image of a daisy, the American artist Bill Beckley’s photographic work.
Authentic Philippe Starck lighting fixtures glow warmly atop a bed of white orchid blossoms; the arrangement is done by Helena, one of the best florists in town. Beyond 1950s-inspired scarlet velvet lounge chairs, a seascape of sea bass, groupers and lobsters inside an aqua-green fish tank comes into view.
“You will be eating those,” says Mr. Kim, grinning and puffing on his cigar.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Kim are happy with their head chef, Park Jae-myeong, who used to work in La Cucina, one of the city’s top Italian restaurants. The three of them traveled around Europe for three months last year in search of fine Italian cuisine. Mrs. Kim says the culinary inspirations behind Paul are Dukats in Munich and Meyers Restaurant in Frankfurt.
Any connection to Paul, the famous bakery chain in Paris? “No,” Mrs. Kim says, “Paul is Sun-yeop’s nickname and this is an extension of our furniture company, House of Joseph. If House of Joseph is an office, then this restaurant is like our concept showroom. We put our experience from extensive travel and inspiration into practice.”
One excellent dish at Paul is grigliota de pesce, or grilled seafood, which costs 38,000 won ($30) plus 10 percent VAT. A large white porcelain plate is completely covered by a sumptuous pile of seafood, sprinkled with what look like toasted snowflakes. A gigantic lobster, a scallop, an abalone, three chunks of potato, two wedge-cut lemon slices and parsley leaves sit on top of two thick slabs of soft sea bass. Seasoned with salt, olive oil, a bit of garlic juice and bread crumbs, they were grilled inside a convection oven to prevent drying out.
Most grilled lobster you get in top restaurants arrives curled up with its flesh slightly yellow and sinewy because it has been frozen. Paul’s lobster is so white and succulent that, upon picking, it crumbles into thin strips, typical of very fresh crustacean meat. The scallop and abalone are not rubbery at all; they are very tender and sweet.
For a dish that tastes this good, no pungent dipping sauce or dressing is needed. Not even wine to wash down the food. Just a glass of refreshingly clean Pellegrino, which costs 3,000 won for a 250-milliliter bottle, will do.
If you want a real bargain out of this dish, then go for a truly wholesome set menu. For 47,000 won, you get a six-course meal, which includes the seafood grill ― the same size as when you order a la carte.
Pasta dishes are excellent. The new twist by Mr. Park here is linguini di nero con gambery, or squid’s black ink linguini with shrimp, squid and cream sauce, which costs 14,000 won. Instead of using the squid’s ink as sauce to coat the pasta, which usually stains the teeth, the chef makes the fresh pasta out of the ink, and coats it with rich white cream. The result is a visually tempting black-and-white pasta dish complete with tasty morsels of shrimp, slices of squid and red paprika.
Upon ordering a lunch set, which costs 18,000 won, you will get pasta and vegetable-and-fruit salad as well as delicious coffee, which costs 6,000 won when ordered separately.
Set menu B for lunch and dinner includes delicious cake such as tiramisu or mascarpone cheese with cream, which costs 6,000 won if ordered alone.
Again, the portion is generous. It’s a natural-looking slab, rather than a tiny cube or square, of soft cake with multiple layers, from aromatic cheese to light cream to a bittersweet coffee flavor.
Paul serves a variety of imported wines from around the world at affordable prices. The average price of wines on the list is about 50,000 won. A bottle of Australian Shiraz starts from 29,000 won, and the fancy Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial Rose costs 100,000 won.
“We’re serving food and wine to our lifelong friends or people just like us, who are gourmets. We love drinking wine, but rarely order an expensive one unless there’s a special occasion,” says Mrs. Kim. “That’s why we keep the quality high and price as low as possible.”
English menu: Available.
Location: Near Hakdong Sageori in Cheongdam-dong.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Telephone: (02) 3445-8867.
Dress code: Smart casual or elegant.
by Ines Cho