If France is too far, try the foie gras hereWhen a couple of my metrosexual friends began discussing, over Japanese sake, the taste of foie gras, I assumed that it was French food’s turn to be the cuisine du jour among Korean gourmets.
But as it turned out, the fad wasn’t French cuisine itself. My male friends, for instance, had never heard of truffles or beluga caviar. As they enthusiastically explained to me, an American cable TV show dedicated to “educating” straight men about style and fashion had made foie gras ― or “pua-gra,” as pronounced here ― the It dish among fashionable young diners.
But one of my friends wondered how such an expensive dish could possibly impress a dinner date when it tasted so horrible. The truth is that in most French restaurants in Seoul, foie gras comes from a can, though a few do offer it made from scratch, as an appetizer.
With this in mind, I visited Schoenbrunn, the French restaurant (despite the German name) atop Lotte Hotel in central Seoul. Elegant and conservative, with an extremely fancy rococo interior, for years Schoenbrunn has been a good place for foie gras. I asked executive chef Bruce Lee whether his customers enjoyed truffles and caviar too.? His reply was interesting.
“When we served hors d’oeuvres for a state dinner here, the guests ate all but the ones topped with truffles,” he said. “Even the most sophisticated diners in Korea don’t know much about truffles, but they are becoming more interested in foie gras and caviars, so we started special events [featuring] truffles in the winter and caviar in the fall,” he replied.
The restaurant was in the midst of a winter black truffle special, making it an opportune time to explore its French cuisine. My dinner companion was a friend of mine who had never tried truffles or fresh foie gras; she wasn’t keen on the idea of eating liver or mushrooms, but said she’d be happy to have a new experience with me.
The sommelier recommended a bottle of 1996 Chateau Prieure-Lichine Margaux, which cost more than 150,000 won ($145).? I asked for something more modest; we each had a glass of 2001 Clos La Coutale Cahors (12,000 won), a light-to-medium red wine, which was fruity, refreshing and easy to drink.
We started with a plate of truffles and scallops with lime vinaigrette and herb sprouts (29,000 won, plus 10 percent VAT and 10 percent service charge). Lined neatly in a row were plump scallops and thin truffle slices, dark brown with snow-white veins; dotted with fresh greens and olive oil, it made for a tempting visual contrast.?
Slightly moist and woody, the fresh truffle’s unique texture was there. Absent, however, was the intoxicatingly rich and pungent aroma of the European black truffle, even though the mushroom was served in relatively thick slices. Indeed, the low price of this dish leads one to doubt that these particular truffles spent any time in French soil.
Then came Schoenbrunn’s signature dish: pan-fried foie gras and duck breast with truffles, caramelized apple and pear, port wine reduction and herbs (45,000 won). (It was topped with truffle slices for the winter promotion.) Again, the truffle aroma was flatter than it should have been; still, the combination of tender pink meat and foie gras dipped in sweet sauce was excellent. The world’s best foie gras is made and served in a flash, scorching hot and extremely tender; this dish didn’t meet that standard, but it satisfied a hunger for the real thing. (My friend affirmed that it was very different from the cold pate she’d tried in the past.)
This was followed by a plate of goat cheese with truffles and beetroots (15,000 won). The mild truffle flavor came through nicely in the thick, creamy cheese, specked with black dots of the prized mushroom.? This dish was so good that we wished we could start a whole new meal with another basket of bread.
Dessert was truffle and sesame ice cream in warm plum soup (16,000 won), an exotic, adventurous concoction that turned out to be most memorable ― a large scoop of concrete-colored ice cream in a pool of warm, dark-ruby syrup, sweet and aromatic, with a subtle hint of truffles. Upon wiping the bowl clean, my friend exclaimed, “This is real French ― I love it!”
English: Spoken, and on the menu.
Tel.: (02) 317-7181~2.
Hours: Noon-3 p.m., 6-10 p.m.; closed on Sundays.
Location: 35th floor of the New Wing of Lotte Hotel, central Seoul.
Subway: Euljiro 1(il)-ga station, line No. 2, exit 8.
Parking: Free up to 3 hours.
Dress code: Elegant or semi-formal.
Second opinion: “It’s expensive, but I like to bring my European customers here. They seem to like it.”― Lee Yong-goo, Seoul
by Ines Cho