Hongdae’s dining scene acquires a little chic“New York chic” is not how Hongdae restaurants are usually described, but that may begin to change with the new restaurant Gastro.
It’s located in a three-story edifice owned by the actor Choi Bul-am and his family, and built by the leading architect Seung Hyo-sang. With an art gallery, Jandari, on the second floor and a cool bar in the basement, this rusted glass-and-steel building, tucked in an alley near Hongdae Park, was clearly designed to be a new cultural destination.
The restaurant’s interior is spacious and warmly lit, furnished with high-quality Italian furniture and tableware. The menu is pan-Asian, adapted for local palates. A chalkboard above the open kitchen lists popular imported wines. The restaurant can seat up to 60; it also has outdoor patios which, before too long, should make for nice wine or coffee breaks.
On a recent visit, my tablemate and I started with yam wun sen, a Thai noodle salad, for 10,000 won ($10). This was a small mound of noodles topped with traditional Thai ingredients ― cherry tomatoes, celery, shrimp and ground pork, but with parboiled squid strips instead of the onion slices found at cheaper places. It was sweet, spicy and tasty. My tablemate, who rarely goes out for Southeast Asian food, loved the unusual fragrance and spice.
I would normally order a rose wine with Thai food, but none were available. Because the two dishes to follow were light and seafood-based, I ordered a glass of Chilean house wine, a 2002 Carmen Chardonnay, which cost 8,000 won.
We had a plate of mee goreng, Malaysian-style fried noodles (9,000 won), which had definitely been modified for Korean diners. It tasted great, but the flavor was far from authentic Malaysian, which is usually oilier and more complex, with sweet and tangy sauces. This tasted more like a Koreanized Chinese noodle dish made with black bean sauce.
We had been told that the wok-fried crabs in sambal sauce (25,000 won) were popular, so we decided to give them a try. The dish was a steaming heap of bright orange crabs, mixed with diced vegetables and the red pepper- and garlic-based Asian sauce known as sambal. The portion was generous, enough to satisfy three diners (assuming they had other dishes to share, too); because it went so well with steamed rice (1,000 won), we ordered two servings to go with the crab dish. The imported young blue crabs, meant to be eaten crunchy shells and all, were so fresh and delicious that we stopped talking. Again, the recipe was closer to familiar Chinese than to Thai or Malaysian. Unlike at most upscale restaurants, the portions were quite large; sadly, we had to let go of some leftover crab and rice.
Sipping wonderfully chilled Chardonnay, we could hardly believe we were having such a sleek dining experience in a Hongdae restaurant. Throughout the meal, every plate and utensil had a designer’s touch. More surprisingly, this impeccably elegant spot didn’t come with New York-scale price tags. At Gastro, there is no such thing as 10% VAT or 10% service charge.
Though this was my tablemate’s first time at the restaurant, he had been to Lovo, the bar downstairs, a few times already. “Lovo is one of only three bars in Seoul ― besides the W Hotel and the Hyatt hotel ― that serve the trendy Mojito cocktail,” he noted.
We wanted some coffee after dinner ― made with the gigantic Italian Gaggia coffeemaker that was sitting atop the main counter ―but we were told we couldn’t have any because it was closing time.
So I went back the next day for a cup of cappuccino in the afternoon. The elegant proprietor Kim Min-ja, Choi Bul-am’s wife and an actress herself, said she uses Tera Rosa beans supplied by a Korean coffee master in Gangwon province who roasts his own beans. Indeed, the big cup of freshly brewed cappuccino (5,500 won) was excellent.
After my surprisingly delightful and stylish meal (and coffee break) at Gastro, I had second thoughts about writing this restaurant review, because spots like this should be kept a secret. But nothing like this stays a secret for long.
Tel.: (02) 322-1766.
Hours: Noon-11 p.m. daily except Mondays.
Location: Near Hongdae Park in front of Hongik University.
Subway: Hongik Univ. station, line No. 2, exit 6.
Dress code: Smart casual or elegant.
Second opinion: “The food and the atmosphere are surprisingly wonderful. Will come back for more.” ― Choi Jae-ho, 28, advertising manager.
by Ines Cho