Authentic Italian food ― just ask the FrenchThe French, it is widely acknowledged, know a thing or two about grub. Given this, it is odd that Seoul’s “Little France” district (set near the French School in Bangbae-dong) has, until very recently, been largely bereft of decent Western restaurants.
Previously, if you had wanted to see Seoul’s French community eating out in force, the place to find ’em was in Seoul’s “Little America” ― to be specific, in Itaewon’s St. Ex. But things have changed in the last year, with the opening of a couple of places that are keeping some of Seoul’s French expats closer to home. One such is Tombola.
Set down a nondescript side road (isn’t this often the case with fine eateries?) off the area’s main road, this is a smallish place. There are eight tables in the main dining area, plus a couple more on an enclosed veranda overlooking a narrow garden. Seated at the tables when we visited were a roughly even mix of French and locals. One wall is covered in black-and-white stills from classic movies and a range of bric-a-brac ― copper kettles, old coffee grinders, even a gramophone ― is placed here and there. All the above, combined with the faux brickwork, wooden floor and yellow lighting, create a pleasingly cozy, homey ambience.
Menu, at first glance, is disappointing. Though trilingual (Italian, English, Korean), it offers only a few salads, a few pastas, a few pizzas and a few main dishes: It is neither extensive nor original. But as we peruse this uninspiring document, our bread basket arrives. This offers hints of good things to come. There is very soft, warm foccacia, and a very garlicky garlic bread, accompanied by the mandatory olive oil and balsamic vinegar dip. More unusual, but a nice surprise, is a bowl of vinegar-sauteed grilled garlic.
Our first choices are salads: grilled vegetable and buffalo cheese, at 12,000 won ($10), and seafood (15,000 won). They arrive stacked high on large, oval plates. Each is a mass of ingredients: lettuce (no iceberg, thanks be), cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, onion, alfalfa. The grilled vegetables ― eggplant, zucchini, red pepper, onion ― are lightly blackened from the grill, the chunks of cream cheese are top-drawer and it is drizzled with a basil pesto sauce. The seafood is also pleasingly abundant: king prawn, shrimp, clam, squid, calamari, accompanied by soft pickled onions. Let me be clear here: These are definitely not your by-the-book, Seoul Mark I Side Salads; they are substantial, tasty and fresh.
For mains, it is seafood spaghetti (16,000 won), rocket pizza (16,000 won) and calzone (15,000 won). The spaghetti is another large mass, in a mildly garlicky oil and (fresh) tomato sauce. The mess of clams, king prawn and calamari, the restrained touch with the oil and garlic, plus the fact that the pasta is al dente all combine to create a very enjoyable and authentic experience. The pizza is piled with fresh rocket, generous shavings of reggiano cheese and a handful of cherry tomatoes and black olives on a light, fluffy base, lightly dusted with carbon from the oven. A really delightful pizza, well worth coming back for. The calzone is a giant, swollen puff of light, golden pastry, containing ham, mushrooms, olives and some powerful-tasting salami. Again, very much recommended.
With pizza it has to be beer, and a Moretti (5,000 won) does nicely. A rather sweet lager, this Italian number is saved from mediocrity by a strongly hoppy aftertaste. Finally, desserts are the house lemon sorbet (3,500 won) and tiramisu (4,500 won). The tiramisu is a large chunk, very, very creamy, served with syrup and dusted with cocoa powder. Sinful. The sorbet is a must: ultra-citrusy, this really causes sharp intakes of breath through the teeth, and is perfect for summer. Last but not least, the coffees here are the real deal. Service is pleasant, speaks English and, given the size of the place, is never out of sight or earshot.
Verdict: My only complaint concerns the main courses, which, being priced north of 30,000 won, are really a bit steep. But I have no moans about anything we ate. As noted, Tombola offers nothing trendy, original or exciting, but it does offer basic, authentic Italian, done right. How many places in Seoul can make that boast?
English menu: Available.
Location: Bangbae-dong, southern Seoul.
Subway: Express Bus Terminal Station, line 7, exit 5.
Hours: Noon-2:30 p.m.,6-9:30 p.m. daily.
Telephone: (02) 593-4660.
by Andrew Salmon