Tradition and surprises with stylish French flair

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Tradition and surprises with stylish French flair

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Until some day in the distant future when Korea gets to boast the top 10 French restaurants in the world outside of France, competition in French dining in the country will remain largely local. So far, the majority of chefs here aspiring to master French cuisine have kept themselves busy honing their skills in the fundamentals of French cooking with relatively little embarrassment and pressure ― all while overly ambitious masters around the world endure cutthroat one-upmanship in introducing novelties that might drive Joel Robuchon to the edge of his kitchen sink.
In Korea, it is the diner who pays an arm and a leg in the name of fancy French dining for dishes often deemed only passable, and that certainly hasn’t helped improve the quality or reputation of French cuisine ― until a good friend of mine, a connoisseur of French food, and I had the chance to try a newly opened French restaurant, Marianne, on a recent weekday evening.
Marianne was the only French restaurant in the Cheongdam/Apgujeong-dong area that was open after 9 p.m., which is a perfectly legitimate hour for French dining. Simply being there got us in a non-stop discussion about all things French.
The restaurant, on the second floor of a brand-new edifice located about a block from the Hard Rock Cafe, was dark and empty except for us and one other table.
Marianne, named after the prominent icon of the French Republic, is a spacious restaurant, which, I was told, could accommodate about 40 diners, but which, with diaphanous veils and glass dividers, some tables strategically placed in corners and on a balcony, still provided reasonable privacy for diners. Meticulous details that bring classy elegance to the place, such as the unusually dim interior, real candles, freshly cut carnations on the table and neatly starched table linen, had us looking for other signs of value-for-money.
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Dinner at a place like this is often reserved for those who can splurge on corporate cards or Korean-style family funding. Quickly glancing through the drinks list, we found that an average wine at Marianne would be a bottle of French red, the 2003 Mouton Cadet at 60,000 won ($63 plus 10 percent VAT). Not bad for a French restaurant in this part of uptown. We chose a glass each, at 8,000 won, of both a very casual Chilean red and a white from Villa Monte.
Dishes described on the menu were nothing unheard-of in French cuisine. Dismissing the 45,000 won course meal, we immediately decided on foie gras, but the well-mannered Korean waiter apologized that they didn’t have liver that day. Knowing many chefs here prepare duck breast like slices of tire, we asked if they did duck breast very well, and the waiter said he was confident they did. We also ordered two main dishes to share: monkfish and a rack of lamb. I asked if the chef could make us some “real” French fries, which soon came free of charge, but the parsley flake-sprinkled fries were unfortunately soggy.
Besides a basket of warm bread, a baked sweet potato topped with whipped cream and strawberries was served as a complimentary starter. We thought the combination of sweet potato, cream and fruit a strange starter with wine.
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A large plate of duck breast (16,000 won) also turned out to be the most adventurous duck breast we’ve ever tasted. While the breast was pink and tender, the mixture of salt, slices of Japanese pear and pale green pear-and-melon dressing that coated the meat, plus the fresh but strong watercress with it was very unusual ―or simply weird. I wanted to pop into the kitchen and ask the chef if he had tweaked the original recipe by replacing orange with pear.
Our long faces quickly brightened up as the main dishes arrived. Firstly, we were glad we had planned to share. Secondly, we got what we thought we could expect from a reputable bistro in Paris.
The whole roasted monkfish and mushroom ragout (29,000 won) was topped with grilled boletus mushrooms on a twirl of mashed potato. Rolled inside crispy pink bacon was a large chunk of white flesh that yielded the juicy but perfectly elastic texture of an extra-fresh monkfish. The smoked flavor of the bacon and the mushroom and the tender mild fish were a perfect match of surf and turf.
The rack of lamb (34,000 won) served on creamy potato had grilled carrot and asparagus stalks criss-crossing the brown meat. The lamb was pink in the center and near the bone and had no meaty smell at all. It could have used more garden herbs to accentuate the lamb flavor, but with not too much garlic, which is how most lamb dishes are served here, the Marianne style was a fine treatment of the quality meat.
When our full-blown stomachs could have used strong desserts, the waiter said Marianne served fresh cake daily but, sorry, it was time to close. Now half past 11 p.m., we left the restaurant with another interesting revelation. For its richly classic and wonderfully tasty coffee, Marianne uses the rare Caffe Breda. As it turned out, Caffe Breda is one of the best gourmet coffee brands found in Italy, and its authentic 1921 vintage poster, titled “Lady in Beans,” nowadays can cost hundreds of dollars.


Marianne
English: on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (02) 517-2101
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Location: 2nd floor of K2 Building in Cheongdam-dong; from Hard Rock Cafe, walk straight up for two blocks.
Parking: Valet.
Dress code: Smart casual or elegant.


by Ines Cho
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