Enjoying a Chinese feast by the Blue HouseIf President Roh Moo-hyun or his Cabinet members still haven’t taken you out to lunch, do not despair, just invite yourself to Luan ― it’s as close as it gets.
Recently, an investor friend of mine called, saying he would purchase some real estate considered “very old money” near the Blue House, and asked me to check it out. To my surprise, the building was so close to the president’s house that plain-clothed police officers check traffic on the street and guard around the clock. Even more surprising was that in this secluded area without a single convenience store, stood a Chinese restaurant.
“Wow, who goes there?” I asked. My friend shrugged. “Well, anyone. It’s packed during lunch time.”
My heart leaped at the idea of dining there ― I was feeling suddenly privileged.
The Luan manager, Ha Shin-jung, has a graceful smile and gentle voice. She explained that modern Chinese cuisine, while popular in southern Seoul, is quite new in northern Seoul, which is why Luan opened in May to cater to professionals in this area.
“We get high-ranking politicians from the Blue House and multi-star generals on weekdays,” said Ms. Ha. A typical seven-course lunch set is reasonably priced at 18,000 won ($18 plus 10 percent VAT), and features braised sea cucumber, prawns and seafood stew.
The three-story building that houses Luan was a private home, and is so small that the first floor has just enough room for the kitchen, cashier and two staircases. The charming second and third floors have five tables each, while diners on the third floor sit on silk mats. For special occasions, a party of 15 can rent out the entire third floor.
The views are of the perfectly manicured Mugunghwa Park, located west of the Blue House. On fine days, the view from the third floor stretches to the verdant treetops of the Blue House as well as the tip of adjacent Gyeongbok palace.
One of the specialties at Luan is cold braised chicken (35,000 won), a special holiday treat in China, according to the chef, who is Korean. The whole, boneless chicken is infused with Chinese herbs and doused in a tangy garlic sauce. Slices of lemon garnish the dish, providing a colorful contrast, refreshing scent and tartness to the tender cold cut.
Assorted seafood and vegetables stir-fried in oyster sauce (45,000 won) was a delightful catch from the Pacific Ocean with the harvests of a Chinese forest. The dish combines cuttlefish, prawn, abalone, scallops and sea cucumber with button mushrooms, water chestnuts, baby corn and bamboo shoots.
A plate of sweet and sour pork loin (22,000 won) is one of a kind in Korea. Instead of thin strips, it is cut into multiple slabs, mingled with pineapple and pepper confits, and coated in an orange sweet-and-sour sauce. We needed a knife to slice the meat, which was like a tender mini-steak deep fried in extra crispy batter.
Sauteed mussels with spicy black bean sauce (20,000 won) is piled with chopped garden vegetables and spices. The combination of glistening orange sauce and the vegetable topping were so mouth-smacking delicious that my tablemates had to tell the waitress several times to leave the plate for us to wipe it squeaky clean with hot Chinese buns before moving on to the next course.
The noodle dishes were fabulous: Pan-fried noodles with seafood (12,000 won) and spicy oyster noodles soup (7,000 won) could be a wholesome meal alone, or shared at the conclusion of a multi-course dinner.
Sipping the dark, medium-bodied Chilean Merlot (2003 Anakena for 30,000 won per bottle), my friend began recounting the history of this neighborhood.
Apparently, the safehouse where former president Park Chung-hee was assassinated is not far away. Mugunghwa Park, to the west of the Blue House, has a small sanctuary memorial. Meanwhile, the building my friend is about to purchase was once the home of a ferocious general who fought in ancient wars.
Seeking a heavenly blessing, it is Korean tradition to serve a feast of solace for the free-floating spirits of dead ancestors. Ah, suddenly Luan made perfect sense.
English: On menu, some spoken
Hours: Noon-3 p.m., 6 p.m.-10 p.m. daily; Closed on Sept. 17, 18 and 19.
Location: On Chongwadaeap-gil near the Blue House; the nearest subway is Gyeongbokgung station on line No. 3, exit 3. Take bus 7018 or 7022, and get off at Mugunghwa Park.
Dress code: Business.
by Ines Cho