Local culinary tradition gets a modern twist

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Local culinary tradition gets a modern twist

For years, there has been a consensus on the Korean dining scene that despite the long history of the country’s culinary tradition, chefs have had a hard time modifying it to cater to modern diners. Higher-end restaurants that try to do so have been failing lately; people looking for authentic Korean food tend to opt for cheaper places instead. This presented a challenge for the caterer An Jung-hyun, who has made a name for herself in the past decade with her ibaji, the traditional Korean wedding banquet food.
“The best Korean food starts with the cream of the crop when it comes to ingredients, and I realized I had it already,” Ms. An says about her decision to open her new restaurant, Wooreega. “Refined Korean dishes are time-consuming and labor-intensive, but I have a dozen staffers specializing in details.”
Confident in her reputation, Ms. An is not worried about being appreciated by the older generation; rather, she wants to appeal to the young. “I’d like see young people hanging out in Wooreega eating simple Korean snacks over a cup of Korean tea, or even espresso,” she says. So her menu includes affordable a la carte items like tteokbokki (spicy, pan-fried rice cakes), as well as set menus that cost less than 30,000 won ($30), plus 10-percent VAT. Full course meals start at 30,000 won for lunch and 78,000 won for dinner.
The restaurant, located in Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul, has a bright, sleek interior by the designer Ma Yong-beom. With two private rooms, it can seat up to 60. The furniture is pan-Asian, but live pine trees, jogakbo (quilts) and other accents make for a Korean mood.
Ms. An’s talent and hard work were evident from the start of a 30,000-won lunch that I recently enjoyed with a friend. It began with a rainbow-colored vegetable salad served on a long ceramic plate; inspired by gujeolpan, the elegant Korean crepes, the salad featured nine kinds of finely sliced vegetables, both traditional (ginseng, carrots) and non-traditional (radicchio, beets). Rather than flour crepes, though, they were wrapped in paper-thin radish slices, to be dipped in mustard sauce. It was a refreshingly light vegetarian selection.
Next came a red snapper fritter, lightly battered and deep-fried, served on a bed of red rose petals. The sauce on the side was sweet and spicy, based on gochujang, the Korean pepper sauce; the sweetness, I was surprised to be told, came from ketchup.
Pyeonchae, another refined Korean dish, was also presented in a truly artistic manner. On a rectangular ceramic plate were delicate rolls of alfalfa and strips of radish and chili peppers, wrapped in thin slices of beef alongside a mound of leek salad and a bowl of mustard sauce. Decorating the plate were a hothouse orchid blossom and a small branch from a Japanese cornel dogwood tree. Would the taste live up to the arrangement? The beef and the salad were delicious, but the mustard sauce made our eyes water.
A set of steamed rice and banchan (side dishes) was simple and very tasty. Baby ginseng roots and dried radish had distinctive flavors; even the kelp strips, which are found in the cheapest Korean restaurants, were delicious. Served in earthenware, the classic doenjang-jjigae, or soybean paste stew, was spiked with dallae, the spicy, wild rocambole found in Korea in the springtime. This stew’s flavor was true to the recipe’s country roots.
The real standard for judging Korean chefs is ganjang gejang, or fresh, marinated blue crab; it wasn’t included in our meal, so I asked for a small sample. The sauce was excellent, though a bit sweet. The meat was not as plump as can sometimes be found, but it was fresh and spiced just right. I regretted not having ordered this earlier in the meal.
The meal’s end was, again, jaw-droppingly beautiful: desserts that were Korean in spirit, yet elegant and modern in presentation (actually, some of them seemed better suited for aperitifs). There were tiny slices of beef jerky and dried fish, “embroidered” with pine nuts and dates; sweet rice cakes; tiny bouquets of pine nuts. My cup of chrysanthemum tea, served in a clear cup on a yellow plate, looked like a postcard from an artist.
(Ms. An is especially proud of her sinseollo, a coal-fired hot pot dish so delicious that it was, according to a myth, reserved for a mountain god. I came back later to try it; brimming with savory broth, with assorted jeon slices, radish slices and nuts, it tasted like what one might imagine ancient royal cuisine to have been like.)
A Korean meal that tastes as good and looks as beautiful as our lunch did leaves a lasting impression, and that’s just what Seoul’s dining scene needs today. I’ve been told that some culinary conservatives have found Wooreega’s tastes and presentations to be strange, even bland. But if I wanted to introduce foreign friends to a refined, elegant version of Korean food, this is where I would bring them.

English menu: Spoken; menu available.
Tel.: (02) 3442-2288.
Location: 93-14 Samdo Bldg.; behind the M-net building in Cheongdam-dong.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Parking: Valet.
Dress code: Semi-formal or elegant.
Second opinion: “The food here is extremely delicious and beautiful to look at.” ― Akira Nishi, employee of a Tokyo pharmaceuticals and biotechnology company.

by Ines Cho
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