Seven stories of vinoculture: a pillar of elegant cuisine

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Seven stories of vinoculture: a pillar of elegant cuisine

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Who would have guessed that soju-loving Koreans would prefer to savor Cabernet Sauvignon and camembert in their casual evenings? At least in the capital’s trendier district in southern Seoul, wine bars have put socialites on the waiting list on weeknights while nearby barbecue-and-soju joints are on the verge of closing down. Sophistication requires slow but steady steps to nurture in the hungry minds of its explorers. Before, after and during their winery travels, lifetime pupils of viticulture can drown themselves in Podo Plaza (“podo” is the Korean word for grape), a handsome granite edifice located in the heart of Apgujeong-dong. Since its opening last November, its patrons have complained that its most sociable spot ― the basement dining room, Vinga (“vin” rhymes with “sang,” from the French) ― is not open on Sundays, something the management says they are considering changing.
Designed to be the ultimate haven of wine in Seoul, the seven-story building has a retail store for wine, books and wine accessories on the first and second floor; a wine academy, Wine & Spirit Education Trust, on the fifth floor, and Korea’s first wine museum on the third and fourth floors, with wine-related function halls on the sixth and seventh floors to be opened by next year.
Vinga, the dining bar, is home to more than 3,500 bottles of about 380 select brands from around the world; the modern yet rustic mood of a cellar was well captured, with images of French wineries projected against red brick walls. Fastidious trendsetters had already laid claim to most of the 70 seats (including a 15-person room that can be split into two rooms) and were busy savoring a truly wide-ranged, reasonably-priced wine over French and Italian cuisine. The fod and wine were expertly partnered by the bar’s three resident taste experts: Kim Hyuck, an author of multiple wine books; Catherine Kim, one of the handful of female sommeliers in Korea, and Michael Ro, the executive chef trained in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.
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The man behind the project is a wine importer/distributor, Johnathan Yi, who succinctly put it this way: “Podo Plaza is a resource center for wine, a commercial-free zone where wine enthusiasts, from beginners to connoisseurs, can experience and learn about wine.”
Thanks to Mr. Yi, who didn’t mind sharing his expertise and personal favorites, my tablemate and I were able to learn and experience the best of what Vinga had to offer. Noting that the same wine could taste different depending on one’s physical and emotional state that day, he chose as a starter, a bottle of refreshingly crisp and lightweight white, the 2002 Auxey-Duresses (68,000 won, about $70, plus 10 percent VAT) from a wine list that looked more like a notebook. From my first sip and sigh of joy, I knew he had understood that my tablemate and I had had a stressful week and that we were out for a long but enjoyable Friday evening.
We got to taste an exquisitely classy salad, which Mr. Yi described as “our version of the Waldorf salad,” alluding to the famous salad served at the New York Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. A plate of Waldorf Salad (15,000 won) came with a gorgeous pile of shredded apple coated in cream cheese, topped with roasted walnuts. Succulent apple juice, cream cheese and woody nuts were married perfectly with an equally classy Chablis, the 2004 Domain William Fevre (58,000 won).
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When we were tipped that Vinga patrons keep coming back for a gluttonous portion (up to three or four diners) of grilled rack of lamb (75,000 won), we couldn’t resist the urge to try it. The center of the meat wasn’t rosy pink as I had expected it to be, but each succulent morsel burst with smoky herbs. Looking at a scrumptious plate of Provencal French fries (12,000 won), Mr. Yi asked me if I ever dipped potatoes in mayonnaise. He convinced me to try by explaining that he learned to do so by hanging out with Dutch friends back in college.
The mayonnaise dipping did wonders to the French potatoes, which tasted even richer and creamier.
For the main course, we had the classic CS from Napa Valley of California, the 1998 Chateau Montelena (114,000 won), which had a nice vine taste that cut the grease.
Just when the serenade for the happy marriage between food and wine was nearing its sad end, Mr. Yi proposed we try his favorite dessert wine, a selection from Montes. He was quick to point out that not many people know the Chilean winemaker produces a dessert wine. Like the noble Sauterne, the 2003 Montes Riesling (45,000 won for 753 milliliters, or 25 ounces) was made from “late harvest,” capturing the belated yet deeply sweetened essence of mature grapes. The wine served in a narrow-lipped glass went down like golden nectar, wiping clean our palates, which had been joyfully spoiled by gratifying lamb and potatoes and fruits and cheese.
By then, to our amazement, the three of us had finished four bottles of wine, and my earlier protest that I can drink no more than two glasses of wine was no longer credible. Clearly, a record was set, and a piece of new knowledge in fine wine and food settled in: We can never go too far and away with a happy marriage.


Vinga
English: On the menu, spoken.
Tel.: (02) 516-1761.
Hours: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, closed on Sundays
Location: The basement of Podo Plaza, near the Poliform store south of Seongsu Bridge.
Parking: Valet.
Dress Code: Elegant
Web site: www.podoplaza.com


by Ines Cho

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