High-end dining experience in a historic hanok building
Decades before high-rise apartment buildings colonized the horizons of Koreans, what they called home was the hanok, a traditional Korean house, whose bluish-gray roof tiles spread like a sea of rippling waves across most of Seoul. These low-rise houses on a bed of stones, were environmentally-built of pine, granite and clay. As society fast forwarded in a frenzy of democracy, however, they were considered embarrassingly backward with kitchens that used coal and wood, outdoor toilets without septic tanks and water pumps in the atrium that froze in winter. By the early 1980s, most homeowners had long abandoned hanoks, happily settling for Westernized living quarters.
Over the past few years, though, nostalgia has driven Koreans to value hanoks again, but this time around, with added panache. Reclaiming bygone structures comes at a steep price because most of the existing houses have missed Korea’s decades-long real estate speculation, so are on the verge of crumbling.
Many small homes on narrow, hilly roads in Samcheong-dong, near the Blue House, had little prospect of redevelopment, until the area revved-up as a chic destination for shopping and supping, becoming a trendsetter in the city’s burgeoning hip culture.
On the outside, the restaurant 8 Steps retains the look of a Korean scholar’s home ― the curve of the roof and a majestic pine in the corner are visible from the street. Up 10 steps from street level, the restaurant is a classic U-shape surrounding a small courtyard, with four tables under ivory parasols. In place of crape myrtles, balsam and royal azalea blossoms are pots of rosemary and mint, ready to be picked for Italian dishes.
Even on weekday evenings, young professionals vie for the tables indoors, so reservations are recommended.
The wine list consists of moderately priced French, Italian, Chilean and Australian wines with personality, including a Dr. Loosen Riesling, Les Baronnes Sancerre and the Art Series Riesling, all under 70,000 won.
On a sweltering summer evening, our 2003 Leeuwin Art Series Riesling, Margaret River (63,000 won, or $70, plus 10 percent VAT) was a medium-bodied, intense wine with enticing notes of refreshing lime and spicy pepper. On the recommendation of an extremely courteous waitress, my tablemate and I ordered three tapas dishes (14,000 won), which change daily. The day’s appetizing reds were chopped tomatoes with basil, grilled paprika and a crabmeat salad. With complementary bread ― baguette and olive ciabatta ― we were in for a treat. The extra-virgin olive oil served on the side was infused with whole garlic, which spread like creamy butter on the bread. Our main dishes were the restaurant’s specialties: champagne risotto topped with grilled petit poussin, or young chicken, with artichoke sauce (29,000 won) and lamp chops (32,000 won). Given the steep price, the lamb portion was small, with two pieces, one on the bone and one without, served with grilled vegetables, a small boletus mushroom and a wedge-cut tomato next to mint and wine reduction sauces. The medium-cooked meat was reddish pink in the center, giving it a tender texture. Like most steaks served in Korea, the garlic was the most prominent flavor among the complex Italian herbs.
The four pieces of young chicken were perfectly toasted, giving a crispy skin and juicy flesh, but the creamy golden rice was overcooked, again, to suit the Korean palate. Homemade pickles, cucumber and peppers, served like kimchi on the side, made the meal even more Koreanized.
English: On the menu, spoken.
Tel: (02) 738-5838
Hours: Noon - 2:30 p.m.; 6 - 10:30 p.m. daily except for Sundays
Location: 63-24 Samseong-dong near the Blue House.
Parking: Paid parking nearby.
Dress code: Elegant or smart casual.
by Ines Cho