Elegant ambience, but modest sushiSeeing the illuminated sushi bar in the sumptuously decorated dining bar The Timber House, I had a vision of grand sushi ―sushi endowed with the sensuous luxury my palate had long desired. An experience at one of the most talked about spots in town would win envy from those who know what it’s like to be associated with the Park Hyatt Hotel. As a tablemate, I chose someone who divides his time between the chic spots in Tokyo and Seoul each month.
Inside the room, mirrors, glass panels and wooden latticework create intriguingly private spaces, and it’s dark except for the sushi bar, which is attended by a Korean chef, Kim Kwang-young. The luscious voice of a jazz singer, Karen Jones, fills the air.
It was past 10:30 on Saturday night, and we were told that because the bar is frequented by business people in the area, it’s slow on weekends. On weekday nights, The Timber House has its peak at 9 p.m., and by 11 p.m. when the live performance is over, most customers have left.
We saw a table full of middle-aged expatriates, along with well-dressed couples in their late 20s and older Koreans inside dimly lit booths.
Upon perusing the menu, my Korean-Japanese tablemate joked, “I see they have ‘executive prices.’” We initially thought it would be perfect to drink Japanese shouchu, Tokyo’s trendy drink, with sushi, but a medium-sized bottle of Ichiko Flask cost 91,000 won ($91 plus 10 percent VAT and no service charge, which means the dining bar encourages tipping). “Wow, a similar quality version of the same brand is sold in convenience stores [in Japan] for 1,000 yen. Let’s forget it and go for beer,” my friend whispered.
They didn’t have Ebisu beer, which goes well with sushi, so we ordered Asahi (12,000 won) instead.
While waiting for our sushi, we discussed our strategy of “value for money,” as we would definitely spread the word about our time here and come back to enjoy the impressively beautiful interior design inspired by Korean antiques. The entire hall and semi-private rooms were decorated with various motifs ranging from antique books to padlocks and quilt lanterns.
Most wines cost over 130,000 won per bottle, and one glass costs more than 20,000 won. So we found the price of a decent champagne, such as the 1998 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Reserve at 132,000 won per bottle, to be reasonable.
When the chef presented us with a plate of assorted deluxe sushi (45,000 won), we couldn’t see the food at all against the luminous table. Mr. Kim told us that the eight pieces were abalone, sea urchin, sweet shrimp, halibut, tuna belly, sea bream, cuttlefish, and scallop and seaweed rolls. That wasn’t enough for our big appetites, so we ordered another serving. Later, Mr. Kim offered us two complimentary salmon sushi.
Although the chef worked hard at preparing each morsel, after one bite we knew the rice didn’t have the right moisture, blandness and firmness that comes from expert sculpting by the calloused hands of a sushi master. None tasted like cream, but rather like the ordinary sushi one might come across in trendy Japanese restaurants in, say, Paris.
As we occasionally cleansed our palate with pickled ginger and beer, we wondered what could have been in the mind of the proprietor who decided to promote a “tourist” food when the country overflows with its own delicacies.
Sensing our disappointment, the chef emphasized that the concept of The Timber House was a “dining bar,” not a “restaurant,” so most people ordered simple snacks served in a “box.” We were told one of the popular choices was the cheese box, for 65,000 won.
Because we were having sushi as the main course, not a side dish, toward the end of the meal the chef offered us a bowl of hamaguri clam miso soup (15,000 won) gratis. The soup was steaming hot and delicious.
We requested green tea to end our dinner, and a very light and ordinary sencha from Korea’s Boseong region was presented.
Both of us agreed that we would come back because there isn’t another place like this in Korea. We were in fact pleased with two rare elements: attentive service by the courteous staff and the elegantly subdued ambience of the dining bar.
When we return, though, the visit will have to be after dinner. If our party is more than three people, we’d order champagne. For two, we’d be happy with a bottle of Ichiko shouchu (31,000 won) with side dishes, like cheese or skewers of grilled meat or vegetables, dishes for which failure is almost impossible.
The Timber House
English: Spoken, on the menu.
Telephone: (02) 2016-1291
Location: The basement of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Samseong-dong
Hours: 5 p.m.-1 a.m. daily
Dress code: Business or elegant.
Parking: Valet (10,000 won).
Second opinion: “This is a great place with a nice ambience and reasonably priced wine. We come here at least once or twice a week.” Kim Soung-whan, professor at Dongduk Women’s University
by Ines Cho