Mussels and bubbly for the well-heeledIs Apgujeong approaching its fin de siecle? The government is cracking down on Gangnam real estate, and with an economic recovery unlikely until the second half of next year, even this ritzy district, the recreation destination of choice for Seoul’s young, posh and loaded, could soon be feeling the chill.
On a recent weekend evening, the place was jumping with its usual fervor. Expensive cigar smoke mingled with the fumes of imported sports cars, and no denizen appeared to be short of the full complement of designer togs and aesthetic surgery. ?With wine bars currently the?hip place for the young and the beautiful to hang, one might have expected the area to boast a dozen champagne bars ― but The Bubbles, in the heart of the district, is, as far as I know, the only one in town.
Set on a second floor, behind green-shuttered windows, the place has cream-colored walls, with glass cellars built into them. There is a bar at one end, with flutes dangling from racks on the ceiling.? In the evenings (it’s closed for lunch), the dining area is lit entirely by small candles placed on the tables and shelves around the dining area. Chansons play over the stereo, and the overall ambience is one of discretion and coziness - an appropriate place for a tryst, but with a little more elegance than one would find in a partitioned coffee shop.
The menu’s standout is not French, however, but several varieties of that Belgian cafe favorite, mussels ’n frites. (An aside: While the ubiquitous fried spud is known to speakers of American English as the “French fry,” Belgians jealously claim to have invented it themselves - and the Gauls, we must note, call them simply pomme frite, with no nationality attached. Legend has it that U.S. soldiers encountered frites in Belgium during World War I, and, thinking themselves in France - in those days, infantrymen lacked satellite GPS systems - dubbed them “French fries.” But enough.) There are also a couple of fish dishes, a steak and a pasta. We order mussels Roquefort for 16,000 won, ($15), beefsteak (30,000 won) and the pasta, spiced linguine (14,000 won).
The mussels come in a huge earthenware bowl, in a blue cheese sauce with onion. The mussels themselves are good; the sauce is not as strong as cheese lovers would like ― alas, this is Korea, where cheese is as popular as kimchi is in, say, Bruge ― but pleasant enough. The accompanying frites are first-class ― slim-cut, dry, not greasy, and unsalted ― but contrary to the generous helping of mussels, you get a miserly serving.
The steak is a different beast. It comes on a bed of pureed carrots, topped with chopped shiitake mushrooms. While the meat itself is no better or worse than pretty well any Seoul steak, the accompaniments are really very good indeed. The puree is sweet, but nicely peppered, while the mushrooms are generously applied on top.
The pasta includes a good dose of mussels, but is barely spicy ― a bit dull. Then again, why order pasta in a Belgian-accented champagne bar??
Speaking of champagne, bubbly is, of course, the main attraction on the drinks menu, and there is gallons of the stuff. Prices range from an almost-affordable 60,000 per bottle to a murderous 670,000 won.
It is also available by the glass, with prices starting at 14,000 won for a flute of Spanish Cordon Negro. Palettes of three flutes are also available, ranging from 35,000 to 350,000 won. Good deals; the snag is, a table has to order at least two palettes.
Anyway, we go for a bottle of Deutz (78,000 won). This is pleasantly but not bone dry, with a touch of apple-skin acidity, and is not a bad accompaniment to the mussels and frites.
“But hist!” you cry, “Mussels and frites are a Belgian treat ― and Belgian food is best accompanied by Belgian beer, non?” Oui. Now, unlike, say, London’s Belgo, which offers (as I recall) a selection of around 100 Belgian brews, The Bubbles offers a modest selection; three, to be exact. This is the Interbrew trinity of Leffe, a golden ale, Hoegaarden, a white wheat beer, and Stella Artois, a lager. All are 9,000 won ― pricey for a beer, but a hell of a lot more affordable than a Champoo. Stella is one of the world’s hoppiest lagers - close as damn to a Pilsner - and its refreshing bitterness accompanies the grub perfectly. (I would say better than any sparkling wine, but as a suds lover, I may be prejudiced.)
Verdict: Overpriced, and one rather wishes they had a few more selections of cheap ‘n’ cheerful sparkling plonk ― but this is Apgujeong, where one not only has to spend money, but has to be seen to spend money. A nice concept, nicely carried off, but probably more suited for romantics than gourmets or trenchermen.
Location: Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul.
Hours. 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Closed Sundays.
Dress: To impress.
by Andrew Salmon