Pay for the privilege of a ‘Chinese’ New YearGung hay fat choy! ?
Much as it may irritate the Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese, the Lunar New Year is known, universally, for better or for worse, as the Chinese New Year. As we usher in the Year of the Dog, two dining possibilities present themselves.
The first and most obvious is a bit of canine cuisine ― a Korean specialty ― but with virtually every private restaurant closed over the holidays, Fido will live to bark another day.
The second is Chinese, and where better to celebrate Chinese New Year in style than in the rarified precincts of the Grand Intercontinental’s Crystal Jade Palace Restaurant? Part of the Singapore-based Crystal Jade Holding Co. restaurant empire, this establishment opened last August.
“Palace” is right. You enter down a corridor lined with private rooms, each with a brass lion door handle. On the walls are framed imperial robes.?At one end is a small interior garden: One wall is composed of fish tanks, in which various denizens of the deep, including some menacing-looking spider crabs, await their fiery fate. The main dining area is a mix of jade green, black and gold, set off with wooden carvings. ?Each table is decorated with an orchid and well-matched cutlery.? Simply put, this is as elegant a Chinese eatery as one can find in Seoul.
Unlike most other Seoul hotel Chinese restaurants, it doesn’t offer a “bit-of-Cantonese-a-bit-of-Szechuan-a-bit-of-Shanghai-and-of-course-lashings-of-jajangmyun (soy sauce noodles)” but rather focuses on Cantonese. The menu itself is a formidable document. Matte black covers bookend oiled parchment pages, on which the selections are set out trilingually, interspersed with attractively styled shots of the provender.
We begin with dim sum, first up being Shanghai Steamed Pork Dumplings (8,800 won, about $9, for three pieces). This is a famed dumpling: Frozen pork stock is added to the dumpling, so when it is steamed, the stock melts and permeates. Very enjoyable, though make sure you stuff the whole thing into your face at once, or the stock will dribble down your chin and onto your freshly laundered threads.
BBQ Pork Buns (6,600 won for three pieces) are dry buns with an acceptable filling of sweet BBQ swine, but rather less exciting than the Shanghai selection, and as a streetside specialty, why is it being served in such a palatial eatery?
Next is Crispy BBQ Pork (18,000 won).? A favorite dish anywhere you find Cantonese communities (i.e. virtually everywhere ― the two Koreas being notable exceptions), this is served with panache. Rather then arriving plonked down on a mass of rice with a bottle of chili oil, it comes here in cube form. The crisp, glazed skin coats thick chunks of porker, and it is served with a vinegary, spicy European mustard. ?As a dish, it is absolutely delicious ― though, while masticating, I couldn’t help but recall a basement restaurant in London’s Chinatown where you get twice this much pork for half the price. Anyway?
It is Cantonese, so the main event has to be fish; after all, in southern China, when guests arrive, the only appropriate offering is a whole fresh fish. A whole garupa (or grouper, if you prefer) costs 70,000 won. It’s served simply: Steamed, in a sauce of soy with spring onions and a touch of coriander. The fish is sliced ’n’ diced at the table, with the tasty-but-tricky-to-eat portions (i.e. head, fins and skin) served in a separate bowl. The flesh is firm and fresh; the sauce is delicate, and the only appropriate accompaniment is plain rice. Splendid.?
As for drinks, there’s a standing wine cellar offering the choice selections one would expect from an international hotel, as well as a range of Chinese liquors (dangerous stuff, in my experience), but the tea is flowing, I have to drive and anyway, I can’t afford to take out a second mortgage to fund my liquid habits. So no thanks.
Service is top drawer. Sean Connery may just have to raise an eyebrow, but I find that when I dine in hotel restaurants I have to stand up and gesture like a human semaphore if I want to get the attention of the serving staff. Here, however, they are extremely attentive and actually quite charming. (There again, the place is far from busy, so I am not sure how indicative my experience is.) I notice, perusing my bill later, that there is no 10 percent service charge on top of the 10 percent VAT, which is highly unusual ― in fact, unique ― in my experience of Seoul hotel restaurants. Bit of a mystery, that.
Verdict. Nice place, great grub, pity about the prices. But I only have myself to blame on the latter front: Anyone who has been in Seoul for more than 30 seconds knows perfectly well that eating in a hotel restaurant is going to cost them an arm, a leg and a couple of vital organs into the bargain. Assuming that you’ve been Seoul in longer than 30 seconds, you have been warned.
Crystal Jade Palace
Address: 1 floor, Grand Intercontinental Hotel, COEX, Gangnam
Subway: Samseong Dong
Hours: 11:00-3:00; 6:00-10:00, seven days
Dress: Smart / smart casual
by Andrew Salmon