Our meal at Wildrocket yesterday reminded me of the lunch we had at a contemporary Korean restaurant called Jung Sik Dang in Seoul a few weeks ago. I didn’t do any extensive research on modern Korean cuisine but I came across a few articles and blogs about a recent wave of “nouvelle Korean” restaurants in Seoul. I learned that there was a handful of young Korean chefs who attended Western culinary schools, apprenticed in NY and Europe, and returned to Korea to open restaurants that merge Korean flavors and ingredients with European techniques. Jung Sik Dang, near Apgujeong-dong, seemed to have a number of favorable reviews and after checking out their website, Kevin, Peter, and I decided to dine there.
The chef-owner of Jung Sik Dang (chef Jung Sik Yim) is a graduate of CIA and his bio noted that he trained at Bouley and Aquavit in New York, as well as Zuberoa and Akelare in Spain. During our visit, one of his sous chefs told us that until last December he worked at Le Cirque in New York. Throughout our meal, the maitre d’ and a female sous chef explained each course and individual dishes in English, which made things a lot easier and comfortable for us (they also have an English menu). The interior of the restaurant was tranquil and modern, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking a park with tall pine trees. It was a misty afternoon but we felt cozy and well cared for at the restaurant.
Since there were three of us we decided to each choose a different dish from the four-course tasting menu. Our amuse bouche was a delicate cucumber foam, which I didn’t find particularly memorable. But the bread and the salad course fared better; we were served small individual baguettes that had pieces of spicy green chilies that gave otherwise very French bread a hint of “Korean-ess.” Of the three different salads, my favorite was the “spring, summer, fall, winter” salad with grilled zucchini, tomato foam, parsley puree, and Gruyere. There was absolutely nothing Korean or Asian about the dish but I thought the presentation was beautiful and delicate.
The rice course came next. I tasted the sea squirt bibimpap first- I knew that sea squirts were in season because I kept seeing it on TV and at the market but it
wasn’t something I was seeking out to eat. The dish included thinly sliced silvers of raw sea squirt, seaweed puree, water parsley and onions. It was not too briny and I wasn’t able to detect too much flavor from the sea squirt except for the slightly chewy texture it gave to the rice. We had expected more from this dish but our disappointment was soon forgotten with another rice dish. This one was called anchovy paella, which was made with anchovy stock (myeulchi base), seaweed, barley, rice, and baby octopus. It was deceivingly delicious; inclusion of barley along with rice gave it a toothsome bite that was quite pleasing. The baby octopus was soft and tender and each spoonful had the background note of dried anchovies that I know only Korean stock base can provide. I could imagine a Japanese version of this dish made with dashi and my palate tried to recall the Spanish version of it with chicken stock. We thought this Korean paella thoroughly enjoyable and agreed that it was the most successful of the afternoon.
Of the meat course we liked the “five senses satisfaction pork belly” and the lamb loin. There were hints of Korean spices in the sauces but the preparation of the meat was straightforward Western (confit of pork belly and the lamb loin perfectly cooked to medium rare). We did find the small shot glass of cold mulkimchee broth that came as an accompaniment to the lamb loin whimsical, but I thought it was too acidic and assertive when sipped after having the lamb.
They had two desserts on offer: raspberry cremeux with peach sorbet and Jungsikdang soo jung gwa. We tried them both but the Korean dessert was infinitely better. Soo jung gwa is a drink served chilled after a meal, but their version turned the sweet cinnamon infused liquid into a jelly. It was topped with ginger cream, peanut brittle, and Asian pear sorbet. It was a perfect combination of sweet, spicy, cold, and crunchy. We finished the meal with some traditional Korean tea and sent away with boxes of house-made chocolates.
Overall it was a good fine dining experience but by no means it was on the same level as Joel Robuchon or Thomas Keller. In recent years Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore have seen an influx of high-end European restaurants, and Pierre Gagnaire opening a restaurant at the Lotte Hotel in Seoul was a definite sign that the restaurant scene in Korea is changing as well. As for this contemporary Korean chef and his restaurant, the next step is New York City. We were told that they will open in Tribeca this year. I look forward to seeing how it fares in my hometown… I hope it will do well.
Jung Sik Dang
Address: 3F, Acros B/D, 649-7 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul