One restaurant, two worldsDining at Marco Polo on a clear day, especially near a window, is like flying first-class, except that it’s motionless, spacious and affordable.
This new restaurant’s bird’s-eye view from the 52d floor of the World Trade Tower, one of the tallest buildings in southern Seoul, is mouth-gapingly spectacular. Below the blue sky, beyond the river weaving through the city, are gleaming forests of skyscrapers, grand bridges and endless rows of apartment complexes, and here and there, verdant hills and parks that look like oases.
Upon settling down, my female guest gushed, “My God, we should get proposed to here!”
In both its cuisine and its interior, Marco Polo, a spacious restaurant that can accommodate 220 people (and has three private rooms), is divided into pan-Asian and Mediterranean themes. The Mediterranean side of the restaurant is styled with light terra-cotta tiles, and dining is in semi-private booths. The Asian side is distinctively modern Chinese, with dark furniture, red wallpaper and paper lanterns.
Two large kitchens, staffed by 36 Korean cooks, are led by a Welsh chef, Russell Martin, who oversees the Mediterranean dishes, and Andy Leong, a Malaysian-Chinese chef who takes care of the Chinese-based fusion. In effect, it’s two separate restaurants, with two separate menus.
It was difficult to choose, but for this review I decided to go with the Mediterranean cuisine, on the grounds that it’s a more unusual choice in Korea. Having worked at the Jumeriah Beach Hotel in Dubai, Mr. Martin has embraced North African, Muslim-influenced flavors.
If you’re tired of ordinary rocket salad and caprese, try the chef’s special salad, which costs 11,000 won ($10) plus 10% VAT. This was a sophisticated mixture of tender, mild young leaves ― miniature chard, beetroots, romaine lettuce ―topped with melted goat cheese (baked with dukkah, the Egyptian spice blend) and warm sesame paste on a toasted baguette slice. The leaves were dotted with golden extra-virgin olive oil and red, sweet-and-sour beet extract. It made for a refreshing combination of warm, cold, fragrant, sweet and sour sensations.
The antipasto was a tapas of Italian and Arabic pickles and pates. Each cost 4,000 won; they were served with a basket of fresh focaccia, Lebanese flatbread, ciabatta and other breads from the nearby Grand Inter-Continental Hotel. Between two slices of ciabatta bread, baba ganoush (pickled eggplant), mushrooms marinated in olive oil and garlic, sun-dried tomato paste, slices of prosciutto and a quick spread of hummus made for the kind of wholesome, European-style sandwich that is virtually impossible to find in Korea ―light, bursting with Mediterranean aromas and extremely delicious. A simple glass of house wine (12,000 won), a 2003 Australian Riesling, complemented it.
The chef recommended duck ravioli (13,000 won), a large plate of five or six dumpings. Unlike the indistinguishable, smashed-up sort of filling you find in a typical dumpling, these were filled with chopped pink meat ―simple, lean and tasting very much like smoked duck.
On to the main dishes. The choices are between Italian dishes (including four different pizzas and some seafood choices) and North African fare with cumin, tumeric or cinnamon flavors.
The lamb kofta (25,000 won), grilled meatballs on a skewer, was nicely seasoned and perfectly grilled, served with yogurt dressing. The fattoush salad that came with it was fine, but I didn’t like the rice, which was infused with cinnamon and cumin.
The Italian dish was baby squid stuffed with spinach and pesto risotto (24,000 won). Although it was very fancy, I found the combination of cooked spinach, squid and pesto to be too complex and heavy, as pesto alone has a very strong flavor.
We chose desserts with North African flair: Lebanese bread pudding (9,500 won) and Turkish panna cotta with grilled figs and Cointreau syrup (9,500 won), plus a double espresso (8,000 won). The very creamy panna cotta went beautifully with its candied fig and orange-infused sauce; the nutty bread pudding was sweet, rich and huge. I was told that it was intended to be shared by two or three people.
Even after a big meal, a stunning view and lots of conversation, I still felt as if I wasn’t quite finished with the place; still unexplored was the alluring Asian side of Marco Polo. I intend to go back and, as the restaurant’s namesake did, see the rest of the world.
English menu: Available.
Tel.: (02) 559-7620.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 6-10 p.m., daily except Sundays.
Location: The 52d floor of the World Trade Tower in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul.
Subway: Samseong station, line No. 2, exit 5.
Parking: Free up to three hours.
Dress code: Elegant or smart casual.
by Ines Cho