An elegant bistro on NamsanThe word about Naos Nova in downtown Seoul spread fast when the bistro threw an opening party on June 24. The first 300 guests who arrived began calling their friends about the new restaurant. By midnight, the sumptuously decorated steel and glass building located at the foot of Namsan had 800 people, who competed for 140 seats scattered around the lounge, basement, bar and terrace. Since then, Naos Nova, which means “new century,” has been the address for upscale parties by Seoul’s most fashionable people.
“Life is too short to drink bad wine,” Kyle Lee, the man behind the five-year project, said over a cup of espresso on the second floor, named “Earth.” Formerly a fashion designer based in Paris, Mr. Lee returned to Korea in 2002 to create “a destination that divides nature and the city” in Seoul. Indeed, the handsome edifice, designed by a leading architect, Jeon Shi-hyoung, stands on the verdant Namsan road overlooking the panoramic view of the metropolis on the other side.
An afternoon can start here with a simple lunch set of a chiabatta sandwich and Illy’s coffee (25,000 won plus 10 percent VAT), but I had mixed impressions after two different visits there. On one occasion, the food was delightful, the service pleasant. On the other occasion, though, a smiling waiter continued to smile over a stale sandwich that came nearly one hour later. He kindly told us to come back in the evening for a better time.
After sundown is when Naos Nova comes to life. The pale onyx marble floor, overhead beams and candles on wrought-iron stands illuminate the dark interior, and poems written by Mr. Lee are projected on walls between “Heaven,” the top floor, and “Hell,” the basement. These elements add a whimsical yet cool touch to the minimalist interior furnished with bold Scandinavian-style furniture.
Naos Nova boasts an extensive champagne list, which includes the 1995 R.D. Bollinger at 257,000 won. The basement cellar can store up to 2,000 bottles. Mr. Lee is particularly proud of rare world-class wines, such as the 1990 Chateau d’Yquem (1,150,000 won), which earned 99 points from wine critic Robert Parker, and the 1978 Pommard Chateau de Pommard (450,000 won). The bar stocks affordable New World wines as well: The Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon starts at 45,000 won. A glass of the 2001 Chateau Jarr from Bordeaux costs 12,000 won.
For me, a nicely chilled glass of champagne, the no-vintage Brut Heritage Delbeck (20,000 won), was a perfect starter for an evening at one of the most stylish places in Seoul.
The dinner menu at the moment is limited but includes fine selections. It is a casual ensemble of Mediterranean and Japanese prepared by Park Min-kyu, the executive chef of Vino Rosso, an upscale Italian restaurant owned by Mr. Lee’s family.
My tablemates and I shared a few dishes well-received by diners there: prawns in spicy cream (55,000 won) and tuna carpaccio with black peppercorns (35,000 won).
The carpaccio was served with a tangy sauce that nicely balanced out the sweet and smooth blandness of the cold white flesh and spicy black peppercorns. Prawns came with a heap of diced vegetables ― zucchini, carrots and onions ― in a spicy tomato-based cream. The crustacians were so large and plump that two were filling for a woman in a body-hugging evening dress. Both dishes were fresh and so spicy in different ways that we needed to soothe our burning palates, and a glass of rich Bordeaux red was perfect.
For the main courses, we tried charcoal grilled sirloin steak (50,000 won) and organic yaki-udon (23,000 won). Both dishes came out in picture-perfect fashion. Next to dainty vegetables ― boletus mushrooms, wedge-cut potatoes, asparagus and broccoli ― the chunky Australian wakyu was sliced like a cheesecake to reveal its luscious pink interior. Steaming plump noodles were perfectly saturated with the delicious juices of a colorful sea bounty: prawns, cuttlefish, mussels, scallops, shrimp and more.
Listening to chic lounge music and perusing French poems on the wall, we felt like we were being pampered at an exclusive club on Place Vendome. So we wanted to go for a digestif, Parisian-style, and Naos Nova is an exclusive importer of teas from La Maison Mariage Freres, a prestigious Paris tea purveyor. Mr. Lee recommended a pot of Marco Polo (13,000 won), an elegant black tea that was lightly fruity and floral, and a gorgeous plate of yogurt ice cream with mocha chocolate cake (16,000 won).
That night, we didn’t have to call other friends, simply because we had it all. Amid the mauve sky at sunset and endless pots of elegant tea was a hearty conversation that melts into our memory.
English and French: On the menu, spoken.
Hours: Noon-1 a.m. on weekdays; noon-2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Location: 448-120 Huam-dong in Yonsan-gu; Near the Grand Hilton Hotel in central Seoul.
Dress code: Elegant or business.
by Ines Cho