August 30, 2017

Korea Michelin tour day 6: itches that need scratching

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When I last passed through Seoul back in 2008 on my way to Central Asia, I was only able to visit one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city. Jongmyo Shrine (宗廟) is closed on Tuesdays and I had only one day in town on that trip.  So I was determined to check that off my list this time around.

When we arrived at the front entrance, I was surprised to find the ticketing counters closed - just as they were 9 years ago.  Fortunately it turned out to be a free-entry day for the public, so I was able to accomplish my mission.

For a royal shrine in the middle of the city, the grounds are actually fairly large.  The buildings are also surprisingly plain-looking, devoid of the bright colors one often sees.  Hey, even Baekyangsa Temple (白羊寺) we went to a few days ago were more ornate...

It took us less than an hour to cover the grounds, and I enjoyed spending time in an oasis of tranquility in the middle of this bustling city.  But it was time to cross the river for a little lunch.

As I was planning this trip and trying to figure out which restaurants with Michelin stars to hit, one word jumped out at me.  Soigné.  It's not an expression that one sees often.  In fact, in recent memory I have only seen it used in posts by the Instagram account chefjacqueslamerde.  But somehow I just needed to come here...  I guess my choice was an odd one, because for one reason or another, the rest of the group did not join us for this meal.

The first thing I saw after being seated at the counter - and it was clear that a few of the-ladies-who-lunch did not appreciate this type of seating arrangement - was this little card.  I thought it was the cutest thing!  It brightened my mood instantly.

Chef Jun Lee refers to the menus he creates as "episodes", and we were now on the 15th Episode.  Each dish has been inspired by a restaurant outside Korea that the chef has visited within the previous year, and the name of the restaurant is prominently listed alongside the name of the dish.

Pure taste | tomato, inspired by Tempura Kondo, Japan - two basil leaves, which delivered very powerful flavors, bearing small dollops of burrata and some tomato powder.  Nice acidity with a little creaminess.  The dish is presented like Korean ssam (쌈).

Fermentation | romaine, inspired by 108, Denmark - romaine kimchi (김치) and aged/fermented snapper, topped with watercress flower.  Nice spicy kick here. 

Vivid elegance | neungi mushroom, inspired by El Celler de Can Roca, Spain - a steamed bun flavored with scaly hedgehog mushroom (능이버섯).  We were meant to spread the mushroom sauce - with some lightly charred mushroom powder - onto the bun.  I realize that the dish is named "elegance", but the mushroom flavors were simply too mild to be interesting.

South | seasonal vegetables, inspired by André, Singapore - placed around the basil and fish oil pesto were vegetables which were either raw, lightly blanched, or pickled: cauliflower, corn, carrot, sun-dried cherry tomato, broccoli, kidney bean, cucumber, kiwi berries, arugula, radish...

Effervesce local | cabbage, inspired by L'Effervescence, Japan - the napa cabbage was slow-cooked with butter and kelp (다시마), then pan-fried at high heat.  Sprinkled with nutmeg powder, then sunflower seed sauce is drizzled on top.  Loved the deep flavors of the sauce.

By now we have gone through the first 4 courses, and I was still hungry.  Starting to get a little worried...

Modern tradition | nan noodle, inspired by Enoteca Pinchiorri, Italy - Chef Jun Lee came to introduce this course.  Apparently these nanmyeon (난면) are part of traditional royal cuisine, and chef has given them an update by adding mushroom and chili powder.  Topped with two types of fresh mushrooms: cremini; and song hwa, which is apparently a hybrid between shiitake (椎茸) and matsutake (松茸).  Served with broth made from chicken and buckwheat.

Beautiful noodles with great texture.

Nature | mountain herbs with quail, inspired by Noma, Denmark - the quail breast roulade was served with different types of seasonal herbs, cooked differently.  Sprinkled with powder made from fermented stems of the herbs, topped with Permesan.

There was garlic purée inside the roulade.  This was very succulent, and of course the garlic everything tasty...

Nature | mountain herbs with Korean beef, inspired by Noma, Denmark - I kinda made Hello Kitty take the beef.  Served with sauce made with red wine and beef jus.  The romaine lettuce on the side came topped with Parmesan and herb crumble.

The beef looked great in the middle.  Unfortunately the slices were too thin and the ratio of beef that was well-done around the edges to the medium-rare center was just too high, so overall the beef was just too dry.  After our amazing Hanwoo beef dinner last night, we would judge other servings of beef a lot more harshly...

No waste | apple, inspired by AMASS, Denmark - this apple tart was made with the whole apple, with diced cubes as well as purée in the middle of all the layers.  Sprinkled with powder made from the peel and the seeds.

Served with a nice hazelnut ice cream with cumble on the side.

Petit four - lemon cream choux, avocado macaron, and coffee canelé.

For the first time in a few days, we actually left a restaurant without being stuffed. That was refreshing.  This was a pretty decent lunch, but as it was the least Korean of all of our meals, it was in a way also the least interesting or revelatory. 

We headed north across the river for our next cultural activity. Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (리움 삼성미술관) has been on my list of museums to visit for a while.  Thanks to my membership with Sothebys Preferred, we were granted free entry.

We started with Museum 2 with its collection of contemporary art, and had a glimpse of the works of many Korean artists.  Hello Kitty is the one with background in art, and she could clearly see lots of dark emotions in pieces dating from the post-war era before martial law was lifted.

Museum 1 was devoted to traditional Korean art such as celadon, porcelain and more, including many national treasures dating back to the 12th century.

After our short museum visit, we met up with my high school friend Rachel - whom I haven't seen in exactly 30 years.  We crossed the Han River once again, and ended up at Ladurée in the Gangnam branch of Shinsegae Department Store.  This is where I got to taste this financier... which Hello Kitty quipped was "when financier and madeleine had a baby"...

We really didn't schedule enough time together, but before she had to rush off, my friend helped me go down to the supermarket and buy some gulbi (굴비) - salted and dried small yellow croakers.  Years ago mom had casually bought some while in Jeju Island, and had been pretty amazed at how tasty these were.  There was a huge disparity in terms or pricing.  Each bunch - tied together with plastic rope - weighed around 2kg, and depending on size they went from KRW 80,000 to 800,000 - which would mean around USD 150 each for a box of 5 croakers.  Apparently these were from Yeonggwang County (영광군) and considered the best quality.  Rachel asked them to cut the rope and also wrap each fish individually in plastic bags - which makes it easier for me.

I bid farewell to my friend, did a little more shopping in the supermarket, and headed back to the Shilla Seoul to freshen up before dinner.  Hello Kitty made another trip to the Shilla Duty Free for cosmetics while I asked the hotel to keep my croakers chilled overnight.  A special dinner is coming up...

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