Fine nouvelle cuisine and a thatched hutThere’s a good reason why the capital’s trendsetters, who seemed to have happily settled down in southern Seoul, suddenly moved their social center to downtown. It’s the new restaurant Tani Next Door, atop the Avenuel department store.
A thoroughly pleasant experience there recently started with the flawless valet parking service at the front door, as extremely well-trained doormen guided us into the marble-lined interior framed with Art Deco brass works.
Beyond the large wooden gate of the restaurant is a distinctively beautiful interior with Korean-style wooden lattice work and furniture in neutral tones. There also are a few private rooms in the back. The concept of an urban resort entered my mind while crossing a small stone bridge over a pond to reach a small Bali-style hut outdoors. The thatched roof, a stone altar and lions’ heads spouting water seemed almost surreal against the city’s bland backdrop. The hut, which can accommodate up to eight diners, is ideal for private gatherings.
I was told later that the entire outdoor terrace can accommodate up to 80 people, while the restaurant inside can handle another 70 or so.
The third in a chain, Tani downtown serves nouvelle cuisine dishes similar to those at the Cheongdam-dong branch. Since opening the first Tani two years ago, Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a Japanese chef trained in French cuisine, has popularized a number of nouvelle cuisine dishes in Seoul, such as red snapper carpaccio with Japanese ume dressing, roasted black cod marinated in Japanese sauce, California-style sushi rolls and the like.
At the latest Tani, a seven-course lunch, allowing diners to sample the day’s special, starts at 28,000 won ($28, plus 10 percent VAT), but a number of a la carte dishes, mostly Japanese, are on the menu, catering to time-pressed businessmen working in the area.
For lunch, I tried classic sukiyaki (40,000 won for two persons). It is served in a beautiful Japanese pot atop a real fire. The taste of the soup was well-rounded ― a blend of soy sauce, sweet rice wine and vegetable broth in which were cooked delicious slices of beef, tofu, shiitake and enokitake mushrooms. It was a quick, simple and nice meal with a bowl of steamed rice and Japanese pickles.
For dinner, instead of an eight-course meal (60,000 won), my tablemates and I decided to sample a few varieties, including Mr. Kobayashi’s proud creations: deep-fried prawns and minced chicken served on bird’s nest-style potato (24,000 won), lobster and scallops in a mushroom veloute (35,000 won) and sauteed fois gras and grilled tenderloin (35,000 won).
To make the meal as light as possible, we ordered, as a starter, a slim plate of tofu canape topped with avocado, minced tuna belly and scallions (20,000 won). It turned out to be a nice choice as the sharp zing of the chili sauce whet our appetites. A fried prawn wrapped in a super-crisp potato “cage” not only made a spectacular presentation, but was wonderfully light and tasty.
The serious French fare was extremely well-prepared and presented. I was perfectly aware that for more than $30, I could get the craft of a Michelin one-star restaurant in Paris. But, in Korea, French food of this quality and portion size is not so easy to come by.
My health-conscious tablemate ordered brown rice with fresh basil (18,000 won). She liked the dish a lot, telling me that the fresh basil and tomatoes were very nice, until upon close study she discovered a lot of fried bacon. She finished the rice; I ate most of the bacon.
The restaurant boasts an impressive wine list that includes France’s 1988 Chateau Latour and 1996 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, which cost millions of won, but the safe bet is a glass of house red, the 2001 Valdivieso c/s, which costs 10,000 won.
Tani’s desserts, which are priced at about 7,000 won, are quite varied. Dainty tarts and cakes come from the chain’s own bakery, called Duchamps, in southern Seoul. The bakery is a “Japanized” French patisserie. I’m used to authentic French pastries, so I found the dessert selection bland, as the taste has been modified for Asian diners, who prefer lighter and less sweet versions of traditional desserts.
But when I have a chance to sip a delicious espresso (8,000 won) while looking out on a gorgeous spring day Bali-style, who needs a French sweet?
TANI NEXT DOOR
English: On the menu, spoken along with Korean, French, Japanese and Chinese
Telephone: (02) 2118-6100
Location: The 9th floor of Avenue L in Myeong-dong
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight daily
Dress code: Elegant
Second opinion: “Tani is more about its fantastic atmosphere. Once I’m inside, I feel like I’m in New York.” Min Hee-shik, chief editor of Esquire Korea
by Ines Cho