Montmartre Hill: C’est la vie in Seoul
French dining is the next big trend in Seoul’s dining scene, thanks to ambitious chefs and well-traveled epicures, and the 10th installation of our Gourmet Street visits the French Village, which has also grown, thanks to local media coverage and growing public interest in French culture.
The French village, surrounding a hilly, two-lane street in Banpo-4 dong in the Seocho district of southern Seoul, started to grow when the French school moved from Hannam-dong to its current location. When the school moved in 1985, it was a small elementary school. In 1998, it was expanded from 800 square meters (8,611 square feet) to 2,800 square meters and built anew by Korea-based French architect David-Pierre Jalicon. Ecole Francaise de Seoul offers classes from kindergarten to 12th grade, giving reason for families from France and French-speaking countries to move to the area, popularly known as Seorae Maeul in Korean.
The original Seorae Maeul was located slightly north of where it is today. The name in Chinese characters means the “village to the west of the water and in front of the mountain cliff.” The original location of the village is where Hanshin Apartments stand, but a disastrous flood in 1925 moved the village farther south to Banpo-4 dong where it is located today. There is still a mountain and a small stream near the town even after its relocation, but the stream is barely visible because of the houses, and in front of Bangbae Middle school is Mount Cheongryong. During the colonial period, the Japanese cut through large sections of the mountain to build roads.
Because of the increasing population of French or French-speaking Koreans in the area, the hill is affectionately called “Montmartre Hill” by Koreans. Here, along a 500-meter-long street are more French signs than any other neighborhood in Seoul ― and names like “C’est Bien,” “Chez Figaro” and “La Trouvaille.” The bricks on the sidewalks in the French village are the red, white and blue of the French flag. Paris Croissant, a local bakery chain, sells more varieties of traditional French bread here for the French residents.
The AFC, Association for French in Corea, is a common meeting place for the French to ease their homesickness and help each other adjust to the Korean community. Commemorating 120 years of relations with France and Korea this year, Montmartre Park opened in March. According to the district office, about 1,500 French natives live in Korea, of which about 40 percent live in the Banpo-dong area. Approximately 130 households with about 560 people now reside here.
Residents like Iris Hardy moved to Korea three and half years ago with her husband who works for the French Cultural Center. She decided to live near the French School, which two of her children, aged 16 and 14, attend.
Kim Hyun-suk, 49, lives in Daechi-dong, about half an hour’s drive from the French Village, but she visits the area at least once a week for her club activity. Ms. Kim is the vice president of a social club named, “Cercle Franco-Coreen,” or “CFC.” Its members meet every Thursday to engage in various activities, such as learning French and Korean, playing Mah-jong and visiting museums. She says anyone who’s interested in French culture can join the club, and most of the members are Korean who have never lived in France, or French family members of people working for TGV, Renault-Samsung, Carrefour, the French Cultural Center or the embassy.
At first, there were only two restaurants in the village: The Italian restaurant La Tombola and a pork cutlet restaurant Sansae. But, as the village gained media attention over the past years, according to the owners of the French restaurant Terre et Mer, it has seen a sudden increase in the number of European restaurants, bars and wine shops. By the end of last year, a brand-new parking garage was built by the Seocho district office and a new art gallery was added to the neighborhood, diversifying the business community here.
Additional reporting by Jin Hyun-ju and Lee Minah
French Restaurants in Seoul
Le Petit Paris: (02) 3142-0282, Sinchon-dong
The Restaurant: (02) 735-8441, Anguk-dong
La Cigale Montmartre: (02) 796-1244, Itaewon-dong
Le Saint-Ex: (02) 795-2465, Itaewon-dong
Arborig: (02) 795-1534, Itaewon-dong
Melisse: (02) 790-9125, Itaewon-dong
La Petit Maison: (02) 929-7863, Donam-dong
Rosette: (02) 781-9662~3, Yeouido
Palais De Gaumont: (02) 546-8877, Cheongdam-dong
L’amitier: (02) 546-9621, Apgujeong-dong
La Scala: (02) 555-3851, Samseong-dong
Marianne: (02) 517-2101, Cheongdam-dong
La Trouvaille: (02) 534-0255, Bangbae-dong
CFC and other French friendship clubs
Association de Franco-Coreen: http://www.afc-online.org/
The France Korean Society: http://perso.wanadoo.fr/france-coree/
Terre et Mer is a small but pleasantly charming French restaurant with old-style French decor, as if it were relocated intact from a backstreet in Paris. Even in broad daylight, the hall needs lighting from its antique-style chandeliers, and surrounded by floral burgundy wallpaper and whimsical paintings, allowing romantic tete-a-tetes for the 20 diners it can hold.
The proprietor, Park Sung-sun, 39, and his wife Kim Ji-yeon, 36, say they wanted to provide a French-style atmosphere, while making great efforts to focus on the dishes, which are authentic Provence and Marseille home-cooking. “As a chef myself, I’m very sensitive to tastes,” said Mr. Park, who also owns a Japanese dining bar, Fuugetsu (Pungwol in Korean), adjacent to Terre et Mer, and another bar called Teum nearby in the French village.
The Korean couple has travelled only in France, and wanted to open a French restaurant in Seorae Village, where they had been living and operating restaurants for a long time. By chance, they met a French chef named Vincent Amour, with whom they quickly became friends. Mr. Amour, who helped Mr. Park start the restaurant, returned to France, and there are now three Korean chefs in the kitchen.
The restaurant’s menu boasts some 50 traditional French dishes, some of which change weekly. The owner says the most popular dishes are sea bass and sea bream dishes, with regular customers coming back for more for the past three years.
The lunch special at 20,000 won ($21), was an impressive assortment of entrees (the French “entrance” or starter course, not the American main course), soup and main dishes. The complimentary French baguette, crispy outside and fluffy inside, tasted typically French, and went perfectly well with a creamy goat cheese mousse and fresh tomato carpaccio drizzled with pesto sauce.
Main dishes arrived elegantly ― The much anticipated seafood dishes, baked sea bass with avocado mozzarella cheese, lemon, and cherry tomatoes in a white wine sauce was an exuberant celebration of French cuisine. From creamy to tangy to cheesy to fruity, in one mouthful, it made everyone at the table raise their glasses again, to celebrate the wonderfully combined tastes of fresh garden and deep ocean.
Getting the sophisticated taste of a fine lamb chop is tricky, but Terre et Mer seemed to have mastered it. Served with moutarde a l’ancienne, or whole grain mustard, the meat was aromatic, thanks to the chef’s just right touch of rosemary.
Endlessly replenished baguette with delicious goat cheese, fish and meat made me very satisfied ― as if I was back in France enjoying a genuine French meal.
The new breed of restaurants in the French village is made for local diners seeking “Euro-chic” dishes. Kitchen Flo, tucked behind the main street, has gained popularity since its opening less than a year ago. The tables in the little terrace, decorated with flower pots, are covered with pink table linen, their chairs matching cushions ― the place is definitely made for girlie hearts. During lunch time, the restaurant is packed with lunching ladies. The menu is a fusion of French, Italian and Asian ― all the popular dishes in Korea’s current dining scene. The lunch set, which costs from 15,000 won to 25,000 won, features tomato focaccia bread, green salad, tomato pasta, tenderloin steak, sea bream and pad thai. Kitchen Flo is run by Jo Jang-hyeon, who is also the head chef, and his wife, who attends to guests in the hall. Mr. Jo used to work for Samsung Electronics but quit to study cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. The restaurant’s manager says, based on French cooking, Mr. Jo tweaked the dishes to suit Korean tastes.
by Ines Cho