Owner, chef and pioneer: One-man bistros take off

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Owner, chef and pioneer: One-man bistros take off

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Ask almost anyone in Korea what kind of restaurant they think would require that its owner also be its chef, and chances are they’ll mention a dingy street-side eatery run by a retired couple.
Those mom-and-pop diners are giving ground in Seoul to a new breed of restaurant, the European-style bistro, run by professional chefs who broke off from fancy restaurants to go independent.
The earliest example is L’Amitie, a French restaurant set up in 1999. It was quickly followed by A Table and Recipe, small restaurants in old-fashioned Korean houses that put as much emphasis on atmosphere as they did taste.
Coincidentally, all three places were French restaurants that had a few tables and served full-course meals. Why French? Well, the country’s cuisine is said to be the easiest for chefs to tailor to their own ends, in terms of both taste and style.
A newer example is Sortino’s, which opened in Itaewon in March. Its chef-owner is Santino Sortono, who hails from southern Italy and who first broke the grip French cooking held on Seoul’s small eateries after four years of living in Korea. Mr. Sortino was a head chef at Il Mare Cuccina in Cheongdam-dong and Peninsula at the Lotte Hotel.
While most owner-chef restaurants in Korea focus on meat and fish, Sortino’s specializes in salads, soups, pasta and risotto for its main dishes. Another prominent feature is porcini mushrooms, a favorite of Italians. The portions are generous, and the atmosphere conjures up images of Florence or Sicily’s rustic street bistros. Some of the best-selling dishes of Sortino’s menu are saffron risotto, which is served with fresh beef mixed with golden Saffron rice.
Mommy in the Kitchen, in Donam-dong, has a similar flair for atmospherics. Located near Sungshin Women’s University, the place serves the kind of homemade meals mothers would prepare for their kids. The restaurant, run by two siblings, also serves the owner’s younger daughters when they come back from kindergarten.
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The concept of Mommy in the Kitchen is southern European “family meals,” which rely heavily on fresh vegetables and fruit. Most dishes also use consome sauce, which is made out of meat broth.
Most of the dishes are relatively cheap for a restaurant in southern Seoul, mainly because the place is located near a university campus and mostly serves students. Its taste, however, is not so humble.
The restaurant uses honey instead of sugar in all its dishes; organic butter is used to make the taste less greasy, and the cozy atmosphere appeals to young women. One of the most popular dishes is “mommy’s spot,” a mix of prawns, mussels and squid simmered with potatoes and eggplants in a tomato puree, served with baguettes. Mommy in the Kitchen also offers lunch specials. Last week, it was fried rice topped with grilled chicken, with a marinated cream sauce.
Being so influenced by French cooking, it’s no surprise that many of Seoul’s “owner-chefs” go into business in Seolae Village, Seoul’s predominantly French neighborhood. One of the most popular restaurants in the area is La Trouvaille, French for “a lucky coincidence.” The place is a casual bistro run by Park Seong-gon, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in London, who followed up his schooling with extra training at Michelin Guide restaurants, including Mirabel and Hilton London Metropole, before returning to Korea.
The dishes here are largely divided into appetizers, risottos, fish, meat and desserts. On weekends, it offers egg dishes, pancakes and pasta for brunch, but be warned. Mr. Park has dropped some of the rituals of French dining to suit the local tastes. One example is the culinary sin of serving garlic bread with a mix of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, fusing French and Italian. The price, though, is moderate; a lunch course costs around 20,000 won ($20). It’s an adequate excuse for a culinary faux pas.


by Han Hye-jin

Sortino’s (02-797-0488) is open from noon to 2 a.m. Parking is limited. A Caesar’s salad costs 7,000 won, and a porcinni pizza is 16,000 won. Leave Itaewon Station, line No. 6, exit 5 and walk toward Jeil Communications. The restaurant is on the second floor of Teumsae Ramyeon.
Mommy In the Kitchen (02-929-1102) is open from noon to 9 p.m. The “mommy spot” course for two costs 29,000 won, while “mommy’s lunch” costs 7,700 won. The restaurant is right across from Rosebud near the entrance of Sungshin Women’s University. La Trouvaille (02-534-0255) is open from noon to midnight on weekends. Valet parking is available. The mushroom soup is 5,000 won; steamed mussels are 9,000 won. The restaurant is across from SC Jeil Bank in Seolae Maeul.
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