Yen’s fusion dishes keep getting betterUnlike New York City, Paris or Tokyo, Seoul has yet to fully embrace the concept of boutique restaurants, small establishments where the owner-chef comes out of the kitchen to see how his guests like his (or her) personal creations. Korean diners tend to avoid speaking with staff, and generally prefer popular dishes at big-name restaurants. The capital’s few boutique restaurants have had a tough time of it ―a fact that has only made Nam Kyung-phyo, owner of Yen in southern Seoul, a better chef every day during the past year and a half.
Yen specializes in Japanese-based fusion in a simple, elegant, nature-themed interior. Including two private rooms and a small bar, the restaurant can seat 74.
Mr. Nam, a Japan-trained chef, has led the fusion trend in Seoul. His beefsteak infused with teriyaki sauce and topped with roasted garlic flakes and jalapenos has been copied everywhere, as has his grilled Japanese sea bass seasoned with fermented miso sauce. “So I have to move on and continue to research to create great dishes that can appeal to sophisticated diners who want changes today,” he said. “The best way to do it is to try the food myself and find what works.”
At such restaurants, trusting your chef is a great way to start. In Japanese, omakase means “leave it to the chef”; Yen’s omakase meal costs 50,000 won ($41) or, for the deluxe meal, 70,000 won (plus 10% VAT). For the deluxe meal, the chef needs time to prepare special ingredients, so he recommends reservations in advance. A lunch course meal costs 25,000 won or 35,000 won.
Last week at Yen, I didn’t even open the menu; I just told Mr. Nam, “You know what I like.” The dinner that followed completely blew away my mid-week blues. Here’s what happened:
A long, narrow ceramic plate arrived, bearing a row of scrumptious morsels: a tiny pork strip; cold braised eggplant; exquisite bites of kazunoko, or herring roe. A perfectly chilled glass of white wine, 2002 Corte Giolo Pino Grigio (10,000 won), went down like syrup with these. A Japanese tablemate said, “I feel like I’m back in Tokyo!”
A bowl of agedashi tofu soup (if ordered separately, 16,000 won for a bowl that serves three or four), in which floated a couple of deep-fried tofu bites and shiitake mushroom slices, was hot and soothing ― very light and Japanese. Following that was a gorgeous bamboo tray of sashimi (22,000 won), to which a garnish of miniature bush clover added a timely note of autumn. There were slices of halibut, salmon, tuna and sea urchin roe, along with hand-rolled squid and a tiny bowl of sea cucumber bits seasoned with chives, soy and vinegar. The squid was rolled like a decorative coat button with nori, yam and plum leaf. Fresh wasabi and momiji-oroshi (pink grated daikon) in the shape of tiny cones looked like two thimbles. With a bit of zing from the fresh wasabi and momiji-oroshi, fresh alfalfa and daikon sprouts, the sashimi was light and delicious. Already this meal was emotionally nurturing. I tried to catch Mr. Nam’s eye to signal my appreciation, but he was insanely busy.
Another beautiful plate arrived, of abalone and scallop wine butter yaki (37,000 won), a stir-fry served in a giant abalone shell. The shell was full of slices of abalone, scallop, shrimp, bell pepper and asparagus, coated in a buttery cream sauce. Japanese chefs tend to stir-fry in simple butter and salt; Mr. Nam had added just a splash of cream for harmony. Every bite was extra-fresh.
Mero misoyaki (24,000 won), grilled Japanese sea bass spiked with fermented soybean sauce, came with sweet miso and roasted pine nuts. The tender flesh was succulent, and the slight tang of the sauce went very well with the earthy pine nuts and the bittersweet miso.
When a large ceramic plate full of meat and vegetables arrived, Mr. Nam came over to the table and told us, “Now you must try the most popular steak; it’s everywhere, but you know mine’s original.” The Yen steak (29,000 won) was an excellent cut of meat, served pre-cut, with a grilled onion slice, chopped jalapeno peppers and Japanese dipping sauce on the side, all drizzled in dark teriyaki sauce and topped with watercress and roasted garlic flakes.
We were too full to finish the last course, a plate of udon pan-fried with seafood and vegetables (15,000 won). Still, we had dessert yet to go. Mr. Nam has much improved his desserts; instead of plain green tea ice cream, he served chocolate cake beautifully garnished with milk and caramel creams and chopped nectar (9,000 won). Paper-thin yam, also part of the garnish, was deep-fried to add a crunchy texture to an otherwise smooth, sweet cake.
Everything was excellent, except for a cup of mediocre coffee at the very end. You see, Mr. Nam doesn’t drink coffee.
English menu: Available.
Tel.: (02) 542-3186.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sundays.
Location: 617-10 Sinsa-dong; behind Hosan Hospital near Seongsu Bridge.
Subway: Apgujeong station, line No. 3, exit 2.
Dress: Elegant or smart casual.
by Ines Cho