Shark fins in flower beds, circling the capital’s elite

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Shark fins in flower beds, circling the capital’s elite

If you’re wondering where to go to find the most fashionable section of society in the capital, try 19 Garosu-gil.
It’s on a quiet two-lane street that connects Sinsa-dong and Apgujeong-dong, in southern Seoul, and is lined with chic cafes, galleries and artsy boutiques. The well-travelled compare it with the back streets of Tokyo’s Daikanyama or New York’s East Village.
Simply walk down the street, up alongside a bed of golden ginkgo leaves, pass a meadow of rapturous peony and orchid blossoms and sit down at a candle-lit table for a cup of aromatic jasmine tea.
It might sound like a fairy-tale setting, but it’s very real and very chic. It’s Kuai 19, a new Chinese restaurant located above the cozy wine bar 19 [sipgu] Beonji, which conveniently is also its address. Even before its media unveiling, Kuai 19 had in its month of operation kept all 47 seats occupied round-the-clock with the derrieres of fashion designers, magazine editors, hair stylists, gallery owners and other Cheongdam-dong socialites.
Easy to see what drew them there: Kuai 19 is a comfortable and romantic spot for casual, affordable, reasonably good Chinese cuisine and wine.
Even the most fastidious art directors are impressed with the restaurant’s little faux Provencal home. From the naturally unkempt potted flowers to the dim lights and wooden tables made to look old, and even the red and white tableware, each bearing the image of a cute Chinese boy in a red cap, the owner’s personal touch is reflected in everything.
Behind this pretty perfection of talent is Kim Young-hee, one of Seoul’s most reputable restaurateurs and the mother of the pop singer Park Jae-sang, aka Psy, who is also the owner of two successful restaurants, Seasons and Petite Seasons.
“I wanted to get out of the all-too-familiar Cheongdam-dong restaurant scene and do something different in another area,” Mr. Kim said. “Restaurants have gotten too expensive, so I wanted to offer reasonable prices, but some high-end magazines complained that the food was too cheap!”
Sure enough, the menu was moderately priced: the most expensive dish is braised shark’s fin, at 60,000 won ($55). Most dishes are around 20,000 won, and the noodle and rice dishes are only 8,000 won.
The menu explains that the name, Kuai, is from the Chinese character for “exhilaration.”
Kuai 19 serves complimentary pots of real jasmine tea, which helps one’s digestion as well as conversation ― that way, those on a budget can skip the wine.
About that wine: the safe choices are a French red, the 2001 Cotes de Rhone, which cost 60,000 won per bottle, or a Chilean red, the 2004 Montes Merlot, at 40,000 won.
The selection, mostly popular dishes one can find at any Chinese restaurant in Korea, was simple, with soup, salad and all the a la cartes.
My tablemates and I went for abalone and vegetable soup (10,000 won), which had slices of asparagus, pine mushrooms and bamboo core; it was a nice and warm starter for a freezing December evening.
Some of the best sellers at Kuai 19 are the prawns with chili sauce (23,000 won) and fried chicken with garlic sauce (17,000 won). The orange sauce served with prawns was a bit too sweet for my taste, but my friends liked it. I preferred the chicken, which was crispy and spicy without being greasy, the way a Sezchuan recipe is supposed to taste.
The side dish, a plate of fresh-looking green bok choy and ginkgo nuts in oyster sauce (17,000 won), was very simple but tasty.
Stir-fried seafood over crispy rice (25,000 won) is a festive treat found in many Chinese restaurants in Korea. Squid, baby octopus, prawns, red and green peppers, bamboo shoots, straw mushrooms and more, all in bite sizes in a pool of brown sauce, sizzled wildly when they were poured over deep-fried rice patties in a scorching hot pot.
The sauteed sea cucumber, pine mushroom and abalone (38,000 won) wasn’t noisy at all, but offered a lot of strong flavors for its three expensive ingredients.
Ms. Kim recommended that we eat the grilled eggplant with pepper garlic sauce (14,000 won) and crabmeat fried rice (8,000 won) together, which turned out to be such good advice that no grain of rice survived. With the next course being the lovely bar downstairs, which is open until 2 a.m., it was easy to see why 19 Garosu-gil is less a location than it is an experience.

Kuai 19
English: some spoken, on the menu.
Tel: (02) 511-8119.
Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; 5:30-11 p.m. daily except for Sundays
Location: 19 Garosu-gil; from Sinsa station, line No. 3, exit 8, walk straight and turn left in front of the TBWA building.
Parking: Street parking; valet after 6 p.m.
Dress code: Elegant or smart casual.

by Ines Cho
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