Buffets leave you cold? This one is different

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Buffets leave you cold? This one is different

If I wanted a wholesome, fresh meal served in a stylish atmosphere, a buffet restaurant wouldn’t be my first choice.
A buffet usually means popular, less-than-exquisite dishes, cooked in advance and served, in abundance, at room temperature. That’s reason enough to avoid them. Besides, I’m not the type to overeat just because there’s a lot of food available.
But when a few relatives and colleagues gushed about La Seine, the new buffet restaurant in the Lotte Hotel in central Seoul, I became curious and decided to sample it for myself.
Making my reservation, I was told that the cost per person would be a substantial 47,000 won ($41), including tax and service charge. (Dinner is 27,000 won for children; breakfast is 27,830 won for adults, 15,730 for children; lunch, 40,000 won and 25,000 won, respectively.)
La Seine, which opened last October, turns out to be a spectacularly designed “new concept” buffet restaurant. The restaurant can seat a total of 300, in the dining hall and in 10 private rooms of various sizes. Upon entering the restaurant in the hotel basement, one sees an endless sea of food ― more than 150 dishes ― at a variety of themed stations. Tables, set with sleek, stainless-steel salt and pepper mills, matching plates and napkins, are arranged as they might be at a trendy cafe. Lighted panels in the ceiling change color every few minutes.
Upon seeing dozens of chefs in white uniforms and caps roaming around, I thought I had arrived too early ― perhaps just before the prep cooks were to go home. But these chefs, a total of 38, are constantly present at eight different stations, where they take orders and prepare food on the spot. These open kitchens, at which the entire cooking process is visible, stimulated my culinary imagination and, of course, my appetite.
Except for one station specializing in Western dishes such as steak, pizza and escargot, the rest served Asian cuisine, including Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian. In this sense, La Seine is close to being an Asian food lovers’ paradise.
A salad, for example, was prepared instantly for me from all kinds of veggies, from Korean-style namul to beef carpaccio, rare endive and succulent black olives. I chose a dressing, and the salad chef mixed my choice of ingredients for me in a big bowl.
I moved on to the sushi station, where popular fish such as halibut, tuna, sea bass, prawn and salmon were sculpted upon request into sushi, maki or rolls. Next to the sushi bar was a pile of exquisite caviar, as well as octopus and sashimi slabs, along with kelp and lettuce leaves for wrapping, Korean-style, and Korean and Japanese dipping sauces. I helped myself to enough sushi ―including pricey ikura (salmon roe) and tobitko (flying fish roe) ― to justify half the price of my dinner by itself.
At the teppanyaki station, I selected a pile of fresh bok choy, boletus mushroom, bean sprouts, scallops, prawn and three small chunks of sirloin, and the chef pan-fried it for me, separating the seafood and the beef to make sure the flavors didn’t mix. With a few shakes of the salt and pepper mills, followed by a splash of oil and white wine, my teppanyaki was hot and scrumptious; the chef tossed it onto a warm plate for me, and I rushed back to my table to enjoy every juicy bite. Another course that could almost justify the dinner bill.
The station specializing in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine served pots after pots of treats, including hot dim sum, out of steaming bamboo baskets. I skipped what I considered to be ordinary dishes in favor of more exotic items, such as curry and soft-shell crabs. Unfortunately, the deep-fried crab was too oily, and the curry sauce was a bit too sweet and mild for my taste.
A fabulously steamed whole sea bass arrived, and diners gushed when the chef opened the silver lid. The white flesh, which crumbled like soft cheese, was extra-fresh and very delicious, with a distinctively Chinese sauce made with oyster sauce, ginger and shredded green onion.
By now I was full, but I didn’t want to skip the extremely tempting noodle station. There, one can choose from about a dozen varieties of fresh, uncooked noodles, from rice vermicelli to Japanese udon to rainbow-colored vegetable noodles. The chef cooks your choice in a huge vat and pours hot broth into the bowl.
My concoction was rather multinational: I had soba noodles, bean sprouts, bok choy and a tiny fish cake in udon broth, topped with cilantro leaves. Sound weird? It was extremely tasty.
Now I really couldn’t eat any more, but I headed to the dessert station anyway, where a chef was busy making crepes with strawberries, nuts, jellies and fresh cream. There were also piles of muskmelon, orange, watermelon and other fruit. Displayed like miniature sculpture were beautiful handmade tarts and cakes, which I thought would go oh-so-well with a cup of espresso; unfortunately, I could only manage one bite of muskmelon and one tiny mango souffle with my coffee. In my head, though, I was planning which stations to visit, in which order, on my next visit to La Seine.

English: Spoken; buffet stations have English signage.
Telephone: (02) 317-7171~2.
Hours: Breakfast, 6:30-10 a.m.; lunch, noon-3 p.m.; dinner, 6-10 p.m.
Location: Basement of Lotte Hotel, central Seoul.
Subway: Euljiro 1(il)-ga, line No. 2, exit 8.
Parking: Free up to 3 hours.
Dress: Elegant or smart casual.

by Ines Cho
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