Stratospheric prices for pedestrian foodKorean food today doesn’t taste like what I remember. The namul dishes served in restaurants might look the same, but they don’t have that wild forest aroma. Red meat of dubious origin can’t compare to memories of succulent Korean beef. Even the spiciest red chili peppers are not as fiery as Korean peppers are supposed to be.
If, like me, you cherish your memories and miss the real stuff, then you know it when you’re served a less-than-ideal dish. But no matter how often you’re disappointed, you keep looking for the real thing.
Among the burgeoning scene of trendy restaurants in Gangnam, where Seoul’s dining renaissance began, The Gaon ― from the old word gaondae, meaning “center” or “orthodox” ― has captured epicures’ attention since opening last fall.
First of all, it has a spectacular interior. Second, it specializes in authentic, upscale Korean cuisine. Finally, the food is very, very expensive. Surely there’s not another restaurant in Seoul that charges 299,000 won ($260) for a bowl of samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup). If the food really captured that old-fashioned flavor, I thought, it might be worth the money.
Located in the posh restaurant-and-cafe row near Dosan Park in southern Seoul, The Gaon’s building stands out in its elegant simplicity. The restaurant was designed by Super Potato, a Tokyo-based studio famous for high-end restaurants all over Asia, including Shunju in Tokyo and Mezza 9 in the Singapore Grand Hyatt.
Inside, the distinctive Super Potato style manifests itself in an open kitchen behind glass, a bamboo atrium, spice jars and stacks of old newspapers, acrylic color bars on the walls ― an extremely polished, modern interpretation of Asian themes. The restaurant’s owner also owns Gwangjuyo, the company that makes some of the finest porcelain in Korea, and the restaurant uses its products.
Looking over the menu, I couldn’t help but gape at the prices listed for modest Korean dishes. Dotorimuk (acorn jelly) was 18,000 won; kimchi beoseot jeongol (kimchi and mushroom stew) was 45,000 won (these prices don’t include a 5-percent service charge, or the 10-percent VAT). Jeonbok galbijjim (abalone and beef rib stew) went for 95,000 won, and there was that mind-boggling samgyetang. I decided that a six- or seven-course meal ― starting from 25,000 won for lunch and 78,000 won for dinner ― would be a better deal.
Though the concept behind this restaurant is to showcase orthodox, refined Korean cuisine, course meals were prepared and served in a Western manner. On a white porcelain place mat, salad and appetizers were served on a series of attractive plates.
A salad was a delightful starter ― a mixture of shredded garden varieties used in Korean cooking, including sesame leaves, leeks, watercress, ssuk (wild chrysanthemum leaves), dried dates, seeded red chili pepper and fresh ginseng root. They were so thinly shredded that, all together, the dish looked like a pile of colorful threads; with a soy sauce-based dressing, each mouthful was herbaceously aromatic and light, whetting the appetite for a wholesome meal.
The jeon (vegetable patties) were something of a novelty, serving the seasonal best fresh and hot, in a rather nouvelle-cuisine way. Thinly sliced pumpkin was lightly pan-fried, like hash browns; chamnamul, the wild mitsuba leaf, was pan-fried with a starch solution and topped with shredded crabmeat. Instead of a vinegar-based dipping sauce, mustard sauce was served on the side. Sae-u gangjeong, or glazed shrimp, was actually a whole king prawn tempura covered with extra-crispy batter. Not traditional Korean fare, but the prawn was fresh and delicious.
Unfortunately, there’s not much else good to report. Though this is the kind of restaurant where one might reasonably expect the best Korean hanu beef, the spicy bulgogi (included in my lunch course meal) and jeonbok galbijjim (dinner) were made with mediocre, overcooked meat. The abalone in the stew, though fresh, was clearly of the farmed variety, lacking that ocean texture and taste. Wild abalone hand-picked by Jeju island’s female divers is very rare these days, but it might have made the dish genuine.
The popular grilled galchi, or hairtail, was by no means the incredibly delicious (and expensive) eungalchi indigenous to the south of Korea, but even judged as a slab of ordinary hairtail, it was inferior to what I could find at cheaper eateries specializing in grilled fish. I picked at the fish twice and couldn’t eat any more.
An extremely polite floor staff member brought in the last course before dessert: steamed rice in a gorgeous earthen pot, and doengjangguk (soybean paste soup) and banchan (side dishes) in delicate, antique-style bowls. Banchan included changnanjeot (fermented pollack’s guts), bean sprouts, dried shrimp and kimchi.
The soup had neither the depth nor the pungent flavor of good, hearty doengjang; the limp young cabbage leaves in the soup were tasteless. The bean sprouts didn’t taste home-grown. I expected the fermented fish to be the chef’s own recipe, but it was one of those supermarket varieties, spiked with garlic and red chili peppers. There must be 10 thousand great kimchis in town made from original recipes, but the kimchi here ― both the traditional spicy cabbage and the white, unspiced mulkimchi ― was below average.
The final dinner course was dainty rice cakes served on a beautiful white porcelain bowl, followed by sujeonggwa (cinnamon and persimmon nectar) and subak hwachae (watermelon punch). The rice cakes, of the kind sold in pricey dessert boutiques, were tender and delicious, and the drinks were colorful and cool. My sense of disappointment abated for a while.
But leaving the restaurant, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d wasted a lot of money. I hadn’t even sampled from what looked like an excellent wine list (the coveted 1999 Romanee Conti Pinot Noir Bourgogne is offered at 3,550,000 won, well below its going rate these days in Tokyo). One could blame the meal on the general fact that it’s hard to capture the old tastes of Korea, but the fact remains that it’s possible to track down those obscure suppliers who know how to get the real thing.
English menu: Available.
Hours: Noon-2 p.m., 6-9 p.m. daily.
Telephone: (02) 3446-8411~2.
Location: Near Dosan Park in Sinsa-dong.
by Ines Cho