Melisse offers French treats with fine wine

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Melisse offers French treats with fine wine

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An idea for culinary revolution on foreign territory often starts with one brave step by an ambitious chef. If the cuisine happens to be French in Korea, the chef has a lot to triumph over ― from dealing with pricey ingredients through adjusting to local tastes to educating about French dining culture step by step. These are all daily challenges at Bistro Melisse, owned by Kim Eung-suk, who was fresh out of Le Cordon Bleu Korea Culinary Arts Institute this year.
For his venture, Mr. Kim was joined by four young talents he met at the school, with one goal in common ― to charge ahead in Seoul’s competitive dining scene by serving French cuisine. Formerly a stock broker and financial analyst for eight years, Mr. Kim, now 35, traveled around France, Spain and the United Kingdom after living in New York and Boston. He also sampled Seoul’s upscale French restaurants and found some frustrating elements: French restaurants here serve a limited variety of dishes with recipes wildly modified to please local palates, and there’s no real concept of desserts to complete quintessentially European meals.
Instead of adjusting traditional recipes, the two head chefs in charge of main dishes, Kim Eung-suk and Kim Ki-hoon, have added Spanish flair to southern French cooking, making the food lighter and healthier. “We wanted a French restaurant that serves all dishes that are made on the spot, from scratch. That includes the desserts, which are usually bought from bakeries,” the owner-chef said.
Since its opening in May, Melisse, on the Itaewon main street almost opposite the Cheil Communications building, has attracted mostly local epicures but is gaining popularity among expats as well, who at weekends fill most of the 12 tables in the simple but elegantly decorated restaurant. The comfort factor at Bistro Melisse ―named after a French herb ― comes from the menu listing only a handful of fine treats and the far from intimidating prices. The owner’s attitude toward wine ― “Less known but quality-oriented” ― means the wine cognoscenti can savor a rare bottle of Pinot Noir from Bourgogne, the 2001 Louis Jadot, at 69,000 won ($64) plus 10 percent VAT. One house wine is an American Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2003 Stephen Kent, the wine served in Ritz Carton hotels worldwide.
Although the salads ― be they tuna tataki or Nicoise ― need improvement because they feature iceberg lettuce in place of romaine or arugula, and bland dressing, there are still excellent starters. A large bowl of mussel gratin with Gruyere and Parmesan cheese (11,000 won) is one of the tastiest mussel recipes I’ve tried, with the chefs using small but extra-fresh shellfish and just the right mixture of cheese in the soup.
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In a plate of Spanish-style mini octopus tapas (11,000 won), the tiny sea creatures curl up in bright orange paprika and garlic oil; fresh green basil leaves add not only a contrast of color but also the aromatic touch of a summer garden. The seafood is extra-fresh and tender, and the red spice makes it a vibrant appetizer.
The French onion soup (6,000 won) is a nice classic, made with home-made consomme ― a work of many, many hours despite its simple-looking preparation. The complimentary baguette doesn’t make you sigh dreamily, as if in Paris, but the loaf was fresh and French enough.
The chefs are proud of the main dishes here, which are prepared in two serving sizes, small and regular; they recommend the pork tenderloin stuffed with dried plum and served with a Dijon mustard sauce (12,000 won for the smaller size) and roasted duck filet with Bigarde sauce (15,000 won).
The roasted duck, cooked with a sweet-and-sour sauce made from orange extract and sherry-based vinegar, was over-cooked, to my disappointment, as I expected super-tender meat with a glistening pink center. The pork tenderloin ― a traditional Touraine-style specialty according to the chef ― is a sophisticated hybrid of meat and sweet fruit. It’s well done but not my personal favorite as I always prefer a bitter treatment of fine meat.
Our Pinot Noir was a perfect marriage with a rack of lamb with red wine sauce (19,000 won). The two pieces of boned meat were perfectly grilled, next to a heap of button mushrooms, zucchini and cherry tomatoes. Dipped in the dijon mustard smeared on the plate, the meat, oozing sweet juice in the mouth, was tender and pink in the center, easily and instantly becoming the evening’s highlight.
The epicurean delights get more intense when diners sample the winning desserts made fresh by two dessert chefs daily. The dessert du jour (6,500 won) when we visited was gateau moelleux au chocolat, aka French chocolate cake, served with vanilla ice cream. At Melisse, the ice cream is made with real vanilla seeds; one can see and taste the true vanilla. As for the cake ― upon breaking the chocolate-colored surface with a fork, dark molten (moelleux means “rich and soft” in French) chocolate burst out, like lava flowing from a live volcano. The same intense pleasure hits diners’ palates from the hot apple crumble with home-made raspberry sorbet.
An addition of, say, almond tuiles or fresh mint leaves, would make these desserts more elegant and more completely international, but even without decorations, the Melisse dessert offers fairy-tale flavors, except that they’re real.
Needless to say, the desserts are strong enough to complement authentic European meals ― in a country where cake is made to be eaten between meals, not after, and that’s a nouvelle territory Melisse chefs are sure to conquer in time.


Melisse
English: Spoken, on the menu.
Tel: 02-790-9125
Hours: Noon-11:30 p.m. daily (3-6 p.m. main dishes are not served).
Location: Next to the Itaewon Hotel; from Itaewon station, line No. 6, exit 2, walk towards Hannam-dong for about 10 minutes.
Parking: Available.
Dress code: Smart casual or elegant.


by Ines Cho

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