A French farmhouse (sort of) in ItaewonFact: French food is some of the finest on earth. Sad fact: Restaurateurs across the planet, aware of this reputation, feel justified in charging silly prices for the stuff.
Naturalement, Seoul follows this distressing global trend. It seems that any restaurant that has a couple of Gallic dishes on its menu, or a couple of French bottles on its wine list, feels free to slap diners with a hefty premium.
The exception is Itaewon, where relatively simple and affordable French food, rather than the haute cuisine found elsewhere, was pioneered by Le Saint-Ex (still going strong) and Churchill’s (which has since become La Cigale). Now another French outfit has thrown its toque into the Itaewon ring: Arvorig (“little sea”) was opened in February by Pascal Biannic Leger and his Korean wife, Lee Tae-yeon. These two are buiding an Itaewon empire; Arvorig joins their nearby pizzeria La Tavola and the aforementioned La Cigale. Oh, and Arvorig also has a wine bar on the ground floor.
The exterior of this large building is emblazoned with the Arvorig logo, which incorporates a Celtic design. Inside, the second floor is split-level, with huge windows letting in the light. Very homey, in an open-plan kind of way: there is a pale wood bar, leather armchairs, a real fireplace and sprung wood floors with worn carpets.
The third floor is a little more intimate, with beamed ceilings and something of a French farmhouse feel (well, as near to it as you are going to get in a three-story concrete building.) It’s really very relaxing. And the Celtic logo? Pascal hails from Brittany, the last Celtic outpost in mainland Europe (legendarily the home of Lancelot), and there is a Breton map above the fire. But none of this has much to do with the grub, which is non-denominational, pan-French.
The extensive menu features dozens of galettes, or savory buckwheat pancakes, and crepes, or sweet pancakes, plus a page or two of classic French entrees, salads and an extensive range of booze. But could Arvorig, which describes itself as a combination creperie-bar-restaurant, be a jack of all and master of none? We shall see.
Our first choice is classic in its simplicity: egg and ham gallette, at 8,000 won ($8). What we have here are thin shavings of pink, moist ham ― but plenty of them ― and one egg, done any way you like. You can’t really go wrong with a recipe this simple, and sure enough, we don’t. More elaborate is the onions, bacon, walnut and roquefort gallette (16,000 won). Rich, powerful flavors marry happily with varied textures ― delicious. Both crepes are thin, brown, nicely textured and lightly crisped around the edges.
Rabbit feed is also offered. A smoked salmon salad (13,000 won) is enough for a warren: a huge platter of fresh lettuce, endives, artichokes, cherry tomatoes, thick salmon slices, a touch of tuna belly and a couple of crisp garlic croutons, dressed in a spritzy mayo. Thank God, there is no chilled cardboard ― sorry, iceberg lettuce ―in sight.
And it’s not just rabbit feed; rabbit itself appears on the menu, a rare visitor to Korean tables. Rabbit cassoulet (20,000 won) is a hearty, rural-style stew of white beans, rabbit and sausage. Very lightly gratineed on top, this is an unconventional but enjoyable cassoulet (duck or goose is a more common ingredient). It’s well suited as a fortifier against chilly weather, but, lacking any spice, may prove bland for Korean palates.
We each sink a glass of dry Norman cider (3,000 won), an unusual but welcome offering in Seoul. For dessert, it’s crepe with chocolate and banana (7,500 won). The melted chocolate is rich and warm; my only complaint about the entire meal is that the banana is served cold. We ordered this because we were accompanied by our five-year-old, but there is also a range of enticing flambeed crepes ― mashed apple and Calvados, chocolate, coconut and Malibu, etc. ―available for adult diners.
Presentation of all the above is nicely carried off, on a combination of colorful and earthenware crockery. Pascal, a former animator, is a good egg and convivial host. I should add that service is far more attentive than I have found to be the case at La Cigale.
Verdict: Arvorig scores high on every base: relaxing ambience, attentive service, excellent provender, hard-to-find (in Korea) dishes and prices that are (in Korea, again) reasonable. The question ― as with all non-local restaurants in Seoul ― is whether they can keep this standard up in the months to come. For now, I will say that I can’t rememember when I last enjoyed a new restaurant this much. But don’t take my word for it: Last Sunday, the entire clientele were French.
English: Spoken, and on menu (French too).
Hours: Weekdays, noon-11 p.m. (crepes), noon-3 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m. (full menu). Weekends, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Tel: (02) 795-1534.
Subway: Itaewon station, line No. 6, exit 2.
Dress: Smart casual.
Second opinion: “We are French, so we know this is real! It’s not easy here, as quality produce is hard to find, but this is even better than many of the creperies back home.” ― Olivier Mouroux, IT worker
by Andrew Salmon