Worthy Italian food in downtown SeoulReal estate people talk about location, location, location. The New Seoul Hotel, sandwiched between the Seoul Finance Center and the Korea Press Center, has it ― no hotel is more central. But if we are talking design, design, design or ambience, ambience, ambience, there is less of a case to be made.
My point is, the New Seoul may not immediately come to mind as the kind of hotel where one expects to find fine dining, but Seoul’s food grapevine has been buzzing with the news that there is a very good new restaurant therein.
The restaurant is on the second floor. The first thing you see at the entrance is a huge double bed. Now, I’ve been to a few hostelries in my time, but this is a new one on me. Has it been thoughtfully placed here for overindulgent diners to sleep off a banquet? Or can wait staff hit the sack between shifts? Or is it designed to cope with emergency guest overflow? Or is an energetic couple going to leap aboard and engage in a passionate frolic for the edification of voyeuristic passersby?
None of these, apparently. The restaurant is named Room 201, and the bed, which is decorative rather than functional, simply represents a hotel bedroom. Oh.
The restaurant itself is paneled with light woods, there is an open kitchen, and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the leafy parking lot and the surrounding concrete jungle. Nothing palatial, but modishly understated. The menu is equally low key, offering the basics: a few appetizers and soups, five main courses, nine pastas.
First, the bread basket. This is simple, containing garlic bread and a basil focaccia, but generously loaded. The garlic bread, a warm, very lightly toasted baguette with generous applications of garlic, is especially good.
Then, appetizers: Cream of potato soup (5,000 won or $5), prosciutto with melon (13,000 won) and spinach and avocado salad with lemon vinaigrette (10,000 won). I find the soup a touch bland, though nicely textured, but our 5-year-old slurps it down with gusto. The prosciutto and ham is a sizeable platter, with chunks of green melon, plenty of ham, and thick slices (not shavings) of crumbly parmesan, plus a handful of black grapes. Substantial portions and excellent ingredients. The salad is a bit disappointing: There is more lettuce than spinach, and that perennial drawback of Korean Italian restaurants, an overapplication of balsamic vinegar, drowns the lemon.
For the mains we choose herb encrusted roast chicken (26,000 won), linguine with anchovies and capers (13,000 won) and risotto with shrimp and asparagus (15,000 won). The chicken is a big bird, coated with herbs and a rather tasteless cheese, but lightly cooked and served with asparagus and grilled eggplant. Not bad. The linguine, however, is simply superb. The capers are still on their stalks and the anchovies are a subtle background flavor. The risotto is equally excellent: A sticky dish with a very delicate flavor of stock and cheese, with fresh prawns and asparagus spears. To accompany the main courses we receive a small pot of crumbled parmesan, which is a nice touch.
The house wine was a Chilean 2001 Portone de San Francisco Sauvignon Blanc. Fruity and rather more robust than most sauvignon blancs, this was a winner at 6,000 won per glass. We finish with yogurt ice cream (7,000 won) ― not terribly Italian, but I am fond of this stuff.
We were the only table in the house, so service was excellent. Just to check, I went back again for Monday lunch, and again the place was virtually empty. The lunch sets (14,000 won) are a very good value. But I must sound a warning note: While Room 201 is cheaper than most, it is still a hotel restaurant, which means diners suffer the extortionate indignity of 10 percent VAT plus 10 percent service charge.
Verdict: Five-star food at four-star prices, and the pasta and risottos are by far the best available downtown. Now, gentle reader, a request. We don’t want every Park, Kim and Lee thronging this undiscovered gem, so please keep it to yourself.
Address: New Seoul Hotel, 29-1 Taepyeongno, Jung-gu
Hours: Breakfast 7-10 a.m., lunch 12-3 p.m., dinner 4-10 p.m.
Open seven days
Parking: Valet available
Dress: Business/smart casual
By Andrew Salmon