Mixture of exotic tastes brings Gauguin to tableTo the delight of Seoul sybarites, a fresh breeze has blown in from New York’s dining scene. Zakary Pelaccio, designated as one of the “Rising Stars New York 2006” by StarChefs, is at the W Seoul Hotel Walkerhill for two days, starting today. He will serve specialities he developed at Fatty Crab, 5 Ninth and 230 Fifth, three of Manhattan’s hottest restaurants.
Mr. Pelaccio is on Starchefs’ list of 16 top-class New York chefs, along with Mark Andelbradt and Makoto Okuwa of Morimoto, Gregory Brainin of Jean Georges Restaurants, and Tony Liu of August. Visits by world-class chefs have helped to inspire the recent development of Korea’s fine dining circuit. Next month, Michael Reidt from Santa Barbara’s Seville restaurant is coming to showcase his expertise in Korea.
Starting from 7 p.m. tonight at the hotel’s Kitchen restaurant, the American celebrity chef will serve a six-course dinner, demonstrating the strong influence Malaysian and Thai cuisines have had on his technique. He learned these regional disciplines while living and working in Indonesia and Thailand in the 1990s. Unlike most Western chefs who work in hotels, Mr. Pelaccio says he labored in local restaurants to pick up “not watered-down, but genuine flavors.”
Born and raised in Westchester, Mr. Pelaccio, 33, has traveled extensively around the world, having mastered French cuisine in New York. He came to Korea for the first time this week with two of his assistants. His aim is to introduce his signature New York dishes along with some of the latest trends in international cuisine.
While the Seoul dining scene is currently awash with French and Italian cuisine, often of indifferent quality, Mr. Pelaccio says his home town is moving in a different direction. “New York diners are actually moving away from serious French cuisine. Instead of four-hour sit-down dinners in a heavy atmosphere, people like to eat light and socialize,” Mr. Pelaccio said. “Diners prefer less pretentious food, with clean and strong flavors.”
In New York he often throws lounge-style dinner parties in the 5 Ninth restaurant, located in the trendy meat packing district. 230 Fifth, a sleek bar, serves casual finger foods in a lounge style space for elegant clients on Fifth Avenue. Mr. Pelaccio is also preparing a New York lounge-style dinner party for Seoul. This will take place tomorrow in the W Hotel’s Namu restaurant and the chef will personally introduce his dishes.
Both dinners will feature a harmonious orchestration of fresh, mouth-warming spices, using local Korean ingredients.
At a tasting on Tuesday I was glad Mr. Pelaccio has wasted no time in discovering fresh oysters from the south of Korea, which he used for a classy, refreshing starter. The characteristically mild-tasting Pacific Oyster, also known as Japanese Oyster, was enriched with a dollop of fresh cream, topped with caviar and chopped chives. This delectable morsel, chilled with tiny ice cubes embedded in the flesh, will be served with a true delight that has just been added to Seoul’s catalogue of fine wines ― the 1998 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque champagne.
The treats from the Korean ocean only got better with a plump prawn. The crustacean, grilled and doused in aromatic cilantro sauce, was accompanied by thin slabs of grilled pork and strips of ripe papaya. Pointing at the golden strips of papaya, Mr. Pelaccio said he would normally use a green, unripened fruit because they are more astringent on the palate, but the combination of meat, fish, herbs and fruit in one plate was perky enough to wake up my sleepy taste buds.
Korea is a country of great-tasting pork, and Mr. Pelaccio didn’t miss this fact. His treatment of this fatty meat, in a Southeast Asian-style, should inspire any chef. He roasted chunks of belly until brown and then tossed them with cubes of Korean watermelon. The watermelon tasted sweet and salty. The rinds had been home-pickled and chopped, to make a canary yellow, crunchy confit surrounding the tender chunks of pink watermelon and brown pork, giving the dish a sharp accent.
This meat-and-fruit dish served as a reminder that in Thailand, culinary enlightenment is found in a perfect harmony of five tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter. In this regard, I think a spicy Syrah would work better with the dish than the syrupy Riesling that they plan to serve.
Mr. Pelaccio’s work had a sublime highlight ― a simple poached sea bass turned into a miracle of taste and aromas. The chef turned this simple fish into a Gauguinesque poisson from a tropical beach. The deboned, thick pad of meat is piled between fresh cilantro leaves and golden papaya shavings. Stimulating my imagination there was a mysterious, spicy background taste that Mr. Pelaccio says is made by the mix of Korean green chili peppers, cilantro root, ginger and chives.
If he were in New York, he would have served the dish with shavings of young ginger. Even so, this Seoul version is vibrant enough to send diners to paradise. “I was inspired by a barracuda steak I ate at a beachfront restaurant in Thailand in 1996,” he said. “The dish was just a fresh slab of fish with chili paste on top, but it was amazing.”
If it wasn’t for the plate that followed, smoked rib-eye served with chili peppers and pomme fondant, I would have stayed on culinary fantasy island for good but, compared with the colorful recipes that preceded it, the last course was less creative with slices of smoked meat and simple garnishes on the side.
I’m not a big fan of rice desserts, but Mr. Pelaccio’s sweet rice congee served with cherry compote over a cup of strong coffee was, after five courses, a nice, light cross between Asian and European.
The dinner costs 200,000 won per person (about $180, including VAT and service charge), but it includes the pricey Perrier-Jouet champagne and unlimited decent wines with every course ― 2004 A to A Pinot Gris Oregon, 2004 Leeuwin Estate Riesling Margaret River, 2005 E. Guigal Cote du Rhone Rose, 1999 Chateau les Ornes de Pez St. Estephe and 2002 Chateau Jean Fontenille. The lounge party (150,000 won per person) featuring Mr. Pelaccio’s signature dishes matched with wine and champagne takes place tomorrow at the Namu restaurant, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
by Ines Cho