August 27, 2017

Korea Michelin tour day 3: the apex of Korean cuisine

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Now that we're back in Seoul, the "Michelin tour" part of our trip can begin.  And we're starting at the very top with La Yeon (羅宴) - the traditional Korean fine dining restaurant at The Shilla Seoul which received the prestigious award of 3 stars in the 2017 Michelin Red Guide for Seoul.

We were always going to get the VIP treatment here.  A few of us were staying at The Shilla, and Mikacina was on hand to make sure not a hair was out of place.  Our group was big enough and we took the larger of the private rooms.  Sunday is normally his day off, but Chef Kim Sung-il came in to work specifically to cook for The Great One.  What an honor it is to be at this table!

And speaking of Chef Kim... apparently he has been working at The Shilla since 1988, and the hotel has been his first and only employer since he first stepped foot in a kitchen.  Nowadays his mission is to revive traditional dishes, and apparently he is all too willing to pass on his recipes so that others can carry the torch - which is something many, many Asian chefs don't do.

We took Shilla (新羅), the longer of the two menus, for the full experience.  I also took the Korean liquor pairing to get more exposure to them.

Appetizing nibbles (주전부리) - the crisps with sesame seeds tasted like the egg waffles sold as street snacks in Hong Kong.  The slices of jujube were dried for a very long time, so they were really crunchy, and incredibly flavorful.  We couldn't stop munching on them.  Appetizing nibbles, indeed!

Welcome dish (환영 음식) - this was mountain yam (山芋) and ginseng juice, which was unfiltered and therefore had a grainy texture.  The earthy flavors of ginseng were very strong.  The cubes of plum jelly on the spoon were taken after the juice - presumably to neutralize the bitter flavors of ginseng.

OmyNara OmyRose (오미로제) - a sparkling wine made with omija (오미자), or magnolia berries.  Definitely very fruity with lots of deep, berry flavors.  The nose was a little strong and slightly pungent.

Platter of nine delicacies (구절판) - gujeolpan (九折坂) is a dish consisting of 8 different ingredients - originally representing the 8 provinces of Korea - meant to be wrapped together in a jeon (전).  It represents harmony.

Clockwise from top: saesongi (새송이 버섯), or king oyster mushrooms; pumpkin; cucumber, neutari (느타리 버섯), or oyster mushrooms; Korean beef; sweet potato; zucchini; doraji (도라지), or balloon flower root.

All the ingredients carried delicate flavors of their own, so they did work very well together.  The sauce on the side tasted of horseradish.  A beautiful way to start.

Steamed abalone with cold soybean paste (전복 된장 물회) - the abalone was, of course, very tender.  So were the scored pieces of cuttlefish.  Nicely flavored with a mix of gochujang and  soybean paste, and plenty of fermented flavors.  This was an upgraded version with abalone, as opposed to leftover seafood found on fishing boats.  Wakame seaweed adds a little different layer of flavors.

Malgeun Badang 맑은바당 - nose was a little sweet, a little grassy, similar to oxidized yellow wines like Shaoxing.

Croaker porridge with seaweed (민어 어죽) - croakers are one of my favorite fish, and I'm ever so happy to taste some.  Naturally this was served with some pickles on the side.

A very flavorful yet delicate porridge.  Consistency is on the thick side, with good umami from the seaweed.

Baedokga Ugok-ju (裴都家 又麴酒 우곡주) - this was unlike any of the cheap makgeolli (막걸리) I've ever had.  The wine tasted more fermented, much more savory, with fermented bean flavors - even though the only ingredients were rice, water, and yeast.  Thick texture and definitely like drinking yogurt.

Char-grilled eel with soy sauce and red pepper paste (장어 양념구이) - very nice.  With finely diced braised ginger and sansho leaves (木の芽) on top.  Again, flavorful without being heavy... and a little dab of the gochujang sauce and a nibble of ginger was enough.

Seonunsan Bokbunjaju (선운산 覆盆子酒) - very sweet on the nose. Very nice to drink.

Royal hot pot (신선로) - this is a traditional Korean hot pot with different ingredients, all prepared separately, pan-frying with flour.

So we have seasonal fish, beef sandwiched between layers of egg, abalone, meat balls, squash, pan-fried egg which had a bouncy texture, onion, egg white, a millefeuille of water dropwort (미나리) and egg white, pumpkin, ginkgo nuts, pine nuts, jujubes...etc. all in Korean beef broth.  The flavors are on point but at the same time light and elegant.  Nothing is over-seasoned.  An incredibly beautiful dish.  I wish we could have had more.

We had a choice of our Korean hanwoo beef (국내산 한우) dishes, so Hello Kitty and I chose different ones.

Char-grilled Korean beef sirloin with pickled onion and seasonal vegetables (등심구이) - very, very delicious.

Perfect execution.  And check out the marbling!

With a side of salad.

Braised Korean beef short ribs in sweet soy sauce with chestnut and date (갈비찜) - Hello Kitty took the galbijjim (갈비찜), and this was incredibly tender and tasty.  Melt-in-your-mouth.  In fact, someone said that this was among the top 50 dishes they have eaten...

Geumsan Insamju Susam23 (금산인삼주 수삼23) - this is the 23% version of the ginseng soju, made with a 5-year-old susam (수삼) ginseng.  The flavors were definitely strong here but clean.  Kinda dry on the palate, but pretty smooth.

We had a choice again for our carb course, and I really wanted to have all of them!  In the end I decided to go for an upgraded version of bibimbap (비빔밥).

Hot pot rice with vegetables and abalone (전복 비빔 솥밥) - naturally, this came with a variety of kimchi and pickles.

The rice bowl itself was beautifully presented.

And meant to be taken with the octopus marinated in sesame oil.  This was delicious on its own.

So I promptly mixed it up.  No gochujang needed here.  Delicate flavors only.  And the abalone was beautiful.

Love the "water kimchi".  So cool and refreshing.

Chilled buckwheat noodles with Korean beef broth (냉면) - this was Hello Kitty's choice.  She wanted something light at the end of a big meal, so naengmyeon was perfect.

The noodles were beautifully done.  I know I sound like a broken record here, but the flavors were just so elegant.  Not bland.  Just delicate.

Mixed rice with vegetables and Korean beef tartare (육회 비빔밥) - Mikacina gave me a little bowl of her bibimbap with raw beef.  This was pretty damn good, too...

Ginseng chicken soup with abalone (전복 삼계탕) - DaRC was also kind enough to share a piece of chicken from his ginseng samgyetang.  Very tender and tasty.

Corn ice cream with pudding and red ginseng flavored brown sugar syrup (옥수수 얼음과자) - nice corn flavors in the ice cream, and a little crunch from the corn kernels in the crème brûlée

OmyNara Full Moon Omija Brandy (고운달) - this came in at 52% which was pretty damn strong.  Tasted a little berry.

Korean Tea and Refreshments (차와 다과) - omija tea, and custard.

This was simply a perfect meal - the finest Korean meal I have ever had.  The purpose of our trip was to open our eyes to Korean fine dining, so see what else was possible other than the barbecue, spicy kimchi jjigae (김치 찌개) and other stuff where all you see is red.  And tonight our eyes were certainly opened.  This was the polar opposite of what we know as Korean food, and I was so happy to have gotten this education.

Many thanks to Chef Kim Sung-il for cooking for us on his day off, and of course thanks to Mikacina for making sure we were pampered.  Now... since tonight was our only meal at a 3-star restaurant, will it all go downhill the rest of this trip?

P.S. We all got some of the dried jujube we loved so much to take home.  I can't tell you how happy that makes me... as it would make a great present for mom.

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