An epicurean’s Japanese delight offers prices that are a real treat

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An epicurean’s Japanese delight offers prices that are a real treat


Seoul has a couple of chic sushi bars where creamy morsels of otoro cost an arm and a leg. Then there is tempura take-out at ubiquitous food counters or bland udon soup in cheap diners. Both are less expensive but they hardly count as examples of stylish and authentic Japanese dining. So, can Seoul’s Japanese cuisine ever reach a point where authenticity, elegance and a good price co-exist?
The answer is “yes” at Ho, an epicurean’s delight, in the heart of Cheongdam-dong. Like a well-kept secret, this Japanese restaurant is a delightful surprise for those who can find its secretive location inside the Table 2025 building, which also houses the noted Buon Posto restaurant, the Table cafe and a fashion boutique owned by the leading Korean designer Kang Hee-sook.
Ho is the baby of Ha Ho, a well-traveled Korean restaurateur who spent many years living in Tokyo and Rome. By chance he met Mr. Kang and was immediately asked to create something new in a vacant space within the fashion designer’s elegant complex, where the city’s fashionable clique relaxes after sunset. Table 2025’s fourth floor is now a cozy hall of mahogany-brown floors for low tables, three private rooms and a terrace for 80 diners.
Since its opening in April, Ho’s head chef, Hiromitsu Higashi from Osaka, has impressed diners with his creative contemporary Japanese cuisine. When customers arrive, Mr. Higashi and his Korean assistants welcome everybody in Japanese ― shouting “Irashaimase!” from the counter where they slice up raw fish. It’s a sign that an authentic meal is in prospect.
I usually let the Japanese chef decide what we will have for dinner ― or “Omakase” in Japanese. I do this without looking into the thick menu book even though my companions’ eyes widen as if to say, “Are you sure? This place looks so expensive!” I know better.
On my last visit, to cater for three people, the prodigious chef prepared a sumptuous plate of sashimi, which looked beautiful, like a work of ikebana, a form of Japanese flower arrangement. On a dry bed of bush clovers lay chunky slices of red tuna and thin lemon slices curled to embrace salmon and salmon roes which glistened bright orange. Perched between fresh orchid blossoms were slabs of yellow tail, sea bream and sea urchin roe which cry out to be devoured. Dotted here and there were tiny wasabi towers in green. Mini crabs carved out of carrots complete a bonsai garden that might grace the bottom of the Sea of Japan. The food is wonderful but it is almost more pleasurable to watch my companions as their jaws drop with surprise and delight. There was a pause as everybody appreciated the designs and then art is forgotten as everything is devoured as though this was our last meal.

Mr. Ho says Japanese food always tastes best when it is served with Japanese drinks, so his restaurant lists 50 types of shochu and sake as well as Asahi beer. My trio went for the beer but for a large supper he recommended a bottle of Tenson Korin (60,000 won plus 10 percent VAT), which is aromatic but with a 25 percent alcohol content; it is a strong aged spirit made from sweet potato. Following the picturesque sashimi treat came stir-fried clams in butter sauce. The creamy flesh in a pool of buttery broth didn’t stay on the plates any longer than the first course.
Just when we thought Mr. Ho might have emptied his bag of tricks our breath was taken away by another culinary work of art. A beef sirloin steak laid on top of a decorative stove was undoubtedly Japanese-inspired, with just the right touch of charcoal flavor and a tangy radish sauce on the side.
Perfectly grilled to medium rare, the brown beef had a sweet pink interior. This is the way a Japanese-style steak should taste and its preparation would be the envy of any top-class Japanese restaurant in the world. The dish made us believe the chef used a stop watch to get exactly the right texture and flavor.
For Ho’s pork steak, Mr. Higashi dabbled with Italian cooking. Tender slabs marinated in red wine sauce were matched with slices of fresh tomato and fried lotus root as well as green salad doused in balsamic dressing, which hid underneath the layers of meat and vegetables. Again the results were delicious.
To round off our meal, we were served two pots of salmon roe porridge and udon made with chicken stock, instead of the usual seafood-based broth. My tablemates were elated. Even though they were full, they couldn’t stop eating.
Finally sated, they again got worried about the price they would have to pay for such a sumptuous feast with such professional presentation ― especially one served in a chic atmosphere within one of the most expensive buildings in South Korea.
But when my friends and families found out Ho’s lunches cost as little as 8,000 won, the omakase meal 35,000 won and the memorable seven-course dinner over Asahi beer for three persons, only 141,000 won, they were amazed. For them, Ho had earned the much-coveted status of an “It-spot” in this city full of culinary talents.

by Ines Cho
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