Pursuing perfect pasta: a taste of Italy in SeoulThe simple Italian dishes, say, a bowl of pasta or a pan of pizza, found in Seoul tell a lot about Korea’s adaptation of foreign culture.
Years ago, even before American pizza chains opened here, Koreans served pizza as if it were bindaetteok. Like the Korean pancakes, the first-generation pizza was thick, soft and gooey, served with powdered Parmesan cheese, a dipping sauce (Tabasco) and side dishes (dill pickles and jalapeno peppers).
The first breed of Italian pasta flew into Korean kitchens via America, so it was ― think Chef Boyardee ― overcooked spaghetti and meatballs made with canned tomato sauce. Thank God, diners today no longer find such classic stuff in Seoul.
Over the decades, though, Korea’s ever-increasing penchant for Italian cuisine forced its local dining industry to fast forward the evolution of Italian dishes here. Apart from the international franchises mushrooming on every corner, each year, a new breed of chefs and restaurateurs is one upping the current best of Italian cuisine out there. So, how far has Seoul come in making real Italian pasta?
A large Korean Web portal specializing in dining has listed Il Primo as the best Italian restaurant in Seoul since its opening last year. That prompts any Italian food lover to try its specialties.
Il Primo is a clean and bright 56-seater restaurant with a modest interior; an open kitchen exposing two Korean chefs cooking orders.
For three hungry ladies, we ordered a bottle of Australian red, 2002 Penfold Thomas Hyland Shiraz (41,000 won, or $43, plus 10 percent VAT) to begin. Since we couldn’t decide between the margherita (11,000 won) and rugola (8,500 won) pizzas, we asked if we could have rugola leaves on top of a margherita and, to our mild surprise, got a customized pizza. A complimentary basket of warm bread and pickles was refilled a few times, thanks to the restaurant’s attentive service.
The pizza with fresh rugola leaves tasted reasonably Italian, but we thought we could have found a better-tasting margherita in other reputable Italian restaurants in Seoul, although we might have had to pay a bit more.
Il Primo’s two recommended dishes, melanzana (11,000 won) and riboreureje (12,000 won), were made with heavy cream and tomato sauce respectively. A bowl of melanzana, or aubergine in Italian, had grilled eggplant and green and red paprika floating in a pool of thick, ivory-colored sauce, under which hid ribbons of noodles. The riboreureje, a dish unknown to native Italians I asked, was a bowl of spaghetti, cooked with mussels, clams, shrimp, squid and a piece of blue crab. Upon serving the dish, the kind waitress said most diners love the soup in the pasta. We also sampled Il Primo’s vongole (8,500 won), made with a dozen fresh short-necked clams.
Having mastered the trick of how to cook and prepare authentic Italian pasta, I had to say the taste of these three dishes was Koreanized. All the pasta tasted as if it had spent five minutes too long in the cooking water. Nonetheless, we all agreed that the vongole was our favorite, even if the dish was a spicy version with red chili peppers and a lot of garlic.
The other side of the Han River has a four-month-old Italian restaurant that’s also been getting good reviews lately. Trendsetters in Cheongdam-dong are raving about Grand Ciel’s excellent pasta, so we gave it a try.
With only six tables and a small open kitchen, Grand Ciel is a bright, cute restaurant which fashion editors love to check out. Most diners there start with a bowl of mussels (14,000 won plus 10 percent VAT) cooked with basil and garlic, followed by pasta and wine.
Over a half-bottle (375 ml) of South African red, 2003 Arniston Bay Shiraz-Merlot, my tablemate and I shared the mussels, which were very fresh and plump, as well as a plate of vongole and another spaghetti with sun-dried tomato and capers.
The tasty red wine cut through the light oil in our mouths in just the right way, while both pastas were prepared in a flash behind the counter and perfectly al dente. The waiter hinted that the young female owner, who was sweating in front of the flames, had learned her trade at Italian Culinary Institute.
What made Grand Ciel truly Italian was the clarity of the aromatic green olive oil that enveloped the Italian colors ― chunks of ruby sun-dried tomato and nude spaghetti noodles dotted with green capers. It was a winner, but an excess of tomato and capers made me guzzle gallons of water after the meal. The vongole too tasted like a dish by a hard-working amateur, as it reeked of too much garlic in the interesting brown sauce, and lacked any Italian green, either parsley or basil. The waiter, however, argued that the dish was culinarily correct, saying their vongole was made to highlight “nothing but the taste of fresh clams.” Such argumentativeness is proof that Italian cuisine has indeed come a long way in Korea.
English: On the menu, not spoken.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Location: 2nd fl. next to Outback Steakhouse in Sinchon; Sinchon station, line 2, exit 3
Parking: Nearby street parking
Dress code: Smart casual
English: On the menu, not spoken
Hours: Noon to midnight daily
Location: Near Dosan Park in Sinsa-dong
Dress code: Smart casual
by Ines Cho