When cooking teachers cook, what do you get? Melite.It can be a dicey task being a restaurant critic. Who among us would not shudder at the prospect of reviewing a restaurant owned by Korea’s most famous cooking teacher?
The restaurant is “Melite” and the teacher is Choi Kyung-sook. Her credentials are formidable: The author of several cookbooks, she teaches, I am informed, the nation’s richest and most famous people ― chaebol families and the like. I often find female cooking teachers to be total dragons (I am married to one), and someone who teaches cooking to modern royalty would, presumably, be even more fearsome. So it was something of a relief to find Ms. Choi not in attendance when I visited.
Her daughter was, though ― and hostesses don’t come much more charming than Suzy Han. This shy, 27-year-old woman describes herself as a “sort of” manager, but having trained in hotel management in sin city itself, Las Vegas, she knows plenty about food, and soon opens up.
The restaurant ― the name has something to do with the island of Malta and/or a biblical refuge, I couldn’t quite work out which ― is set in the upscale residential district of Cheongdam-dong. A blend of angles and curves, it looks something like a 1970s pentacostal church. Inside is a lot of water trickling into pebble-filled stone troughs, glittering lighting, a dark-marble walled dining room and a long serving hatch offering views into the kitchen. Private rooms are available.
Now to the grub. Ms. Choi apparently disdains the description “fusion,” instead insisting that her food is the more pretentious-sounding “nouvelle cuisine.” However, a glance at the menu makes clear that this isn’t the 1970s-style French trend of mild sauces and lightly cooked ingredients, but a mix of Asian and European ingredients and dishes. Sorry ― that’s fusion in my book. (I should note that most restaurants in this area disdain the term, which is nowadays a virtual cliche. The excellent fusion restaurant “Tani,’ down the road, for example, calls its cuisine “nomadic,” which makes even less sense. But I suppose it is less ridiculous than a “Moroccan” restaurant offering ham specialties ― something these pages have recently featured.)
Anyway, we begin with a carpaccio of halibut (22,000 won, or $22) in a soy and sesame oil sauce, with chopped mushrooms, ginger and chives. Delicately presented, this offers a subtle range of soft textures and well-blended tastes. Next are lightly grilled scallops (26,000 won) in deodeok and wasabi dressing, topped with fish roe, and set with avocado slices on a circle of lemon. Again, a range of delicate but well-chosen flavors ― and again, beautifully presented.
The next choices are simpler and less baroque. Lobster Risotto (18,000 won) proves very, very soft, but with a hint of graininess in the background, and chopped mushrooms in the mix. The lobster flesh is good; the lobster stock makes the dish even better. Heavenly. Calamari on a bed of romaine lettuce, topped with an ultra-fine julienne of onion and dressed with miso, creates a soft, sweet and gentle salad.
For mains, we have chargrilled tenderloin (35,000 won) and Chilean sea bass (25,000 won). The steak is Korean, served ready chopped and cooked almost perfectly rare. It comes in a sweet, honey-based bulgogi sauce, topped with fried garlic crumbs. Orgasmic stuff ― but being served in “gourmet” portions, it’s price is a bit steep. The bass is served with a Vietnamese chili sauce, peppers, eggplant and mushrooms, all providing a riot of color, but the fish itself proves a little oilier than I like.
Finally, we had Korean rice, pollack soup and a dozen side dishes (10,000 won). While all were fine, in terms of presentation and strong flavors they clashed so much with all that had gone before that I decline to review the dish; apparently, this is designed for local diners who insist on Korean. But if you want decent Korean grub, there are restaurants aplenty; if you want differentiated fusion, there are few. So choose the latter, I say.
To drink, the house red is a 2003 Chilean Malbec (10,000 won per glass/40,000 won per bottle) which has a strong, burnt fruit nose and a dark, austere palate. OK, but not as lively as some Chilean reds. On a weeknight, the place was quiet and the service attentive.
Verdict: What we have here are fine flavors and textures, married to fresh ingredients and masterly presentation. Ms. Choi learned cooking in Japan, and the delicacy of taste and attention to detail that Japanese cuisine demands is reflected in these carefully produced dishes. Despite my earlier misgivings, this place is a find for those ready to shell out serious gelt. Recommended.
Hours: 12-3 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. daily; closed Sunday for lunch
Address: Floor 1 MK Building, Cheongdam-dong 116, Gangnam-gu
Subway: None nearby
by Andrew Salmon