Clubby Chinese fare with prices to matchCare to dine at The Club?
Ah, the images this invitation conjures up! “The Club.” Uniformed flunkies. Leather armchairs. Old boys rustling newspapers, and the gentle hum of chappish conversation from the dining room. Formality, fraternalism, exclusivity.
At least that is the image one might harbor of a gentlemen’s club in London, New York or Boston. Yeouido’s Seoul City Club is a rather different beast.
Although set deep in stockbroker and politicians’ territory, this is no stuffy Edwardian gentlemen’s club. With sports facilities below and feeding and watering stations above, this is a plush, modern establishment.
So, you ask (quite reasonably): How could a humble scribbler like you be a member? The fact is, I’m not, and if you want to dine here, you don’t have to be either; just make a reservation.
But this is no bad thing. As Marx ― Groucho, not Karl ― once said, “I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member.” And the fact that the host in this case was The Wife should make clear that Seoul City Club is not exclusively for gents.
Our destination is the club’s Chinese restaurant, “Baekwon.” A public dining area is available, though on Saturday evening it is totally deserted; presumably, they do better business during the week.
Even so, this being a club and all, we have booked a private room. (We have our five-year-old in attendance, and this is not the kind of place where screaming sprogs tearing about the place will be looked upon kindly, one suspects.)
The room is wood panelled and spacious, with windows offering 12th-floor views. The white-clothed table is dominated by a large lazy susan with a bottle of Chilean Cabby Sauvignon and a bottle of Chinese Wuliangye strategically placed thereon, but the formality of the setting is undermined by a brash plastic placard advertising “Whisky Happy Hour” deals.
The menu has sets for 69,000 won ($67), 79,000 won or 95,000 won per person, each offering an eclectic collection of Chinese dishes, primarily Cantonese and Szechuan fare. We choose the 79,000 won set.
First is braised shark fin with caviar in oyster sauce. The sauce is dark, rich and gelatinous, set with a sprig of bok choi for color. Delicious stuff, and a very generous portion indeed. The caviar though, appears to be added purely for snob value: sprinkled on top, its taste is overwhelmed by the sauce. Braised sea cucumber on diced pork belly is next. Now, I have never developed a taste for sea cucumber ― lumps of spiky marine jelly just don’t do it for me ― but The Wife reports that this is fine stuff. The pork belly is heavenly: thick, sweet and so soft it (literally) melts in the mouth. The dark, heavy sauce is similar to that of the first course.
Garlic lobster changes the tempo. These are deep fried “lobster balls” in a gelatinous sauce, heavy on vinegar and spice. Delicious, though not for wimps, but I have to say that the strength of the sauce, which contains Szechuan chilis, doesn’t really give the flavor of the lobster flesh a chance. Sauteed gaebul with leeks is a very different dish again. Gaebul are a type of brown, tubular sea worm (sounds appetizing, eh?), but in a simple garlic sautee with the leeks, are really rather pleasant.
Penultimately, there is a choice of noodle soup with strips of chicken or fried rice. Both are fine, though not remotely exciting. And finally, a very refreshing dish of coconut milk and tapioca.
Servers are formally attired in white blouse and black skirt ― the latter with a cheongsam-style slit down the side just to keep the old buffers’ hearts pumping (“I say Humphrey, did you see that flash of thigh? Gad!”). Our waitress was very much on the ball, but should you need to summon her, there is a buzzer on the table.
The only unpleasant part of the meal is coughing up the funds for the bill. While the prices here could cause strokes as they stand, in the finest tradition of modern Chinese capitalistic kung-fu, there is more to come. Sock! A 10 percent service charge slams into the customer’s jaw. He reels. Wham! A 10 percent VAT charge follows up to the groin. I imagine this is a painful experience even for the scandalously overpaid financial types who inhabit this district on weekdays.
Verdict: Premium grub in generous measures, Seoul City Club offers five star hotel-quality chow at five star hotel-level prices.
Seoul City Club
Tel: (02) 785-9635/7/8/9.
Location: 12th floor, Kookmin Ilbo Building, next to Yeouido Park (at the river end).
Subway: None convenient.
Hours: 12:00-2:30; 5:30-10:00. Closed Sundays.
by Andrew Salmon