Harmony, chaos and heavenly pie
It is the first foray into the restaurant business for Sean Choi, Above’s owner. Mr. Choi said he spent two years preparing and researching restaurants and food for the ambitious undertaking. Mr. Choi, a music producer by trade, built his reputation for designing and operating Fushigi, modeled on Paris’s famous Buddha Bar, discreetly located in the Itaewon backstreet.
“I wanted to start a real lounge like you can find in Europe, where you can start with dinner first and end the night with dancing,” Mr. Choi said, pointing at the small DJ table in one corner. So far, several birthday bashes on weekend nights had transformed Above into a jubilant dance club over the past months.
The design theme is “Turkish bath,” which explains the miniature tub, as well as the floors and walls covered entirely in lapis blue tiles. The rest is a canvas of rich ethnic hues ― old red carpets, golden Moroccan lanterns and pink French-style chairs, with the colors appearing even more opulent in the evening. During the daytime, when brunch is served, Above’s clientele can soak in chic French chanson remixes. By night, though, when sensual Brazilectro dance music fills the air, the lounge flickers like a candle in a dark, as if in some mysterious city somewhere far from Korea.
The food is Euro-contemporary cuisine, based on recipes from Italy, and France and its former colonies, such as Morocco and later Vietnam. To evaluate the Italian, my colleague and I sampled the classic vongole (11,000 won, about $10, plus 10-percent VAT), which we were told was made with fresh little clams. The pasta, wrapped with sliced garlic and dark oil, was topped with brown clams, and the dish came out steaming hot. With slightly overcooked noodles, it was only passable, considering the enormously stiff competition for Italian food in Seoul.
Some of the top choices on the two-page menu included a plate of assorted seafood served with Italian herb risotto (23,000 won), roasted pollo (chicken) (18,000 won) and a Turkish minced meat (beef and mutton) burger served with sticky rice risotto, known simply as kofte (18,000 won).
Similar to typical Korean-style hamburger, the kofte steak was prepared as a starter to Turkish cuisine for local diners, and the rice also tasted like Korean-style fried rice. To embrace the local palate, the chef mixed mutton with the more familiar beef, which meant that one had to be reminded to savor the mutton.
The assorted seafood risotto came out like a beach party: Mussels, clams, baby octopus, prawns and rings of cuttlefish tumbled on top of cream-colored rice dotted with green parsley flakes. Again, the rice was not as al dente and creamy as some luxurious risotto in high-end Italian restaurants, but picking shells, poking at some flesh, and popping them in mouthfuls were fun and flavorful ― especially over a casual conversation or a nice bottle of red wine.
The great news is that Above treats wine like an easy-going friend. A reasonably classy bottle of French red, the 2003 Mouton Cadet, can be fetched for 58,000 won, and a bottle of Chilean red, the 2004 Santa Helena Gran Vino Cabernet Sauvignon, is 28,000 won, about half of what’s normally charged elsewhere. When good and affordable wine accompanies good food and music, time just flies.
Near closing, we sadly realized we didn’t even get around to imbibe any fashionable mojitos or martinis ― each of which was available in enough variety to fill a full page on the drinks menu ― by the time our tableful of colorful dishes and wine bottles were cleared. Over a cup of dark coffee (4,000 won), we waited for the Today’s Special dessert, an apple pie, that didn’t come until we were done with coffee. Sorry, no refills.
When a plate of apple pie (5,000 won) criss-crossed in brown honey arrived, the business of eating became emotional and dramatic. Straight from the oven, the pie had a buttery flaky outer shell fluffed like angel’s wings. “Oh My God, it’s not a McDonald’s apple pie!” my colleague joyfully cried out. The paper-thin apple slices were scorching hot and smacking sweet. The gooey honey apple pie at Above truly lifted us aloft.
English: Spoken, on the menu.
Tel.: (02) 749-0717.
Hours: 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Location: Behind the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon; the nearest subway station is Itaewon station, line no. 6, exit no. 1.
Parking: Free up to 2 hours in the Hamilton Hotel; after 10 p.m., valet.
Dress Code: Elegant or smart casual.
by Ines Cho