Classic Korean food ― with wine, not soju

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Classic Korean food ― with wine, not soju

Kim Young-hee is one of the avid culinary conservationists in the capital who believe that someone must continue the tradition of authentic Korean food. She was particularly disheartened last year when some of Seoul’s top Korean restaurants, such as Seorabeol and Syeoble, went out of business.
When they did, she renovated Petit Seasons, her small Korean restaurant in Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul. Since opening in May 2003, Petit Seasons, specializing in classic Korean home cooking, has attracted epicures who appreciated not only Ms. Kim’s exquisite Korean cuisine, but her devotion to the country’s culinary heritage.
The restaurant, which can seat up to 40, is a cozy place serving simple but delicious Korean dishes in a modern, elegant manner.? Certainly there are non-Korean elements here; the decor is romantic European, with sheer coral-pink curtains, white candles and rose bouquets. Instead of soju on the tables, you’ll see Montes Alpha wines in Italian crystal. But there is also traditional Korean brass tableware, and the sort of hand-dyed linen napkins once favored by Joseon Dynasty nobility.
One of the hardest things about running the restaurant, Ms. Kim says, is the labor-intensive preparation involved in the traditional dishes. “Old recipes need to be modernized to suit the contemporary diners who are so busy and so health-conscious,” she says. “No one will spend that many hours in the kitchen these days; I cannot ask my daughter, who is also a chef, to work so much for a dish.? At the same time, the food has to taste the way original Korean dishes should.”
The newly renovated Petit Seasons, which re-opened last November, has a broader menu ―about 40 dishes, in Seoul and North Korean style (Ms. Kim’s father-in-law comes from Pyeongan province in the North).? They are served in full course meals or a la carte, Korean-style.?
A six-course lunch costs 40,000 won ($36), plus 10% VAT; a 10-course dinner is 70,000 won. For an extra 40,000 won, diners who make reservations a day ahead of time can also have sinseollo, an elaborate hot-pot dish that was supposedly enjoyed by sinseon, godlike mythological figures.
Our dinner started with a bowl of date juk (porridge), mild and sweet, followed by two slices of gorgeously marbled pyeon, a jelly made with bits of shiitake mushrooms, eggs and pine nuts, suspended in the translucent jelly like a piece of sculpture. It tasted mild and delicious when dipped in a mustard sauce.
Next came tiny pieces of steamed zucchini topped with chopped shrimp, served on sesame leaves.? After that, a steamed prawn generously dressed with a pine nut and mustard sauce, under which were slices of sweet pear, cucumber and chestnut.? Following this was a plate of japchae, the clear noodles with shredded mushroom, chili peppers, carrots and onions.? Beautifully presented, each of these morsels produced a perfect harmony of tastes ―not an indistinguishable blend, but real, sweet, fresh shrimp, for instance, paired with real, sweet, fresh zucchini.
We were then brought pyeonsu, a North Korean-style dumpling made from minced vegetables and pork, served in a clear, hot broth; it was light and tasty. (Ms. Kim says she stresses light, vegetarian food to satisfy health-conscious diners.)
My tablemate was an extensively traveled Singaporean whose only exposure to Korean food before this had been beef barbecue. He was surprised to find the meal refined, delicate and wholesome in its variety; he was also surprised that the food went so well with his favorite French red, 2000 Domaine Pontificial Chateauneuf-du-Pape (120,000 won per bottle).
But when yukhoe, or raw beef, was served, my friend’s eyes widened.? “I don’t eat raw meat.? I tried beef tartare in Paris, and I thought it looked and tasted gross,” he said, looking down at the ball of red meat, presented on an orchid leaf atop a black stone bowl.? I insisted, and he tried it.?
Seasoned with sesame oil and infused with a light scent from the lemon slice below, the meat, he said, tasted surprisingly delicious.? At my suggestion, he mixed it with the finely shredded sweet pear and cucumber; he later said the experience had changed his perception of beef tartare.
By the time we’d had our choice of main courses, authentic-tasting bibimbap and hot noodle soup, and moved on to simple Korean desserts of rice cake and rice nectar, we were glowing from a beautiful meal, wine and conversation. I knew that we could have easily found bibimbap, noodles, rice and nectar anywhere in Seoul that night, but it was a pleasure to experience these familiar dishes prepared so elegantly, and so deliciously.
Walking out of the restaurant, I was happy that we’d had an excellent meal, but even happier that I’d been able to introduce a stranger in town to real Korean cuisine.

Petit Seasons
English: Spoken, and on the menu.
Tel: (02) 546-6732.
Hours: Noon-3 p.m. and 6-11 p.m. daily, except Sundays.
Location: Behind the M-net building in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul.
Parking: Valet.
Dress: Elegant.
Second opinion: “I think that even those who are not extremely fond of Korean food can enjoy this kind of ‘soft-landing’ first approach.” ― Francesco Rausi, Italian Ambassador to Korea

by Ines Cho
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