We wanted to have at least one gourmet, fine dining experience during our trip. Past attempts have led us to the conclusion that this can be a dicey prospect abroad (or in 80% of America), mostly because the meals tend to reflect the American fine dining scene of ten years ago. Of course, this view is limited to the countries I’ve visited. I realize that America in no way sets the standard, I just rarely find myself in a country riddled with Michelin stars. Speaking of Michelin, they basically don’t acknowledge that South Korea exists, and when scouring the web and guide books for recommendations, the consensus, especially locally, is that the gourmet food scene in the ROK leaves a lot to be desired. We were last snake bit in Poland, where our one high end meal was arguably the worst of our trip. But, we wanted to come to understand what fine dining means in South Korea. The field was about five large; easily narrowed down to our one choice, Jungsik Dang, a neo-Korean restaurant that really seemed to be the most consistently recommended/blogged about/written about spot on the list.
We made the brilliant decision to go for lunch as opposed to dinner, which meant that we arrived hungry, sober, and alert, which has never happened during a travel dinner involving the four of us. Ever. Also, we felt that if the meal was simply meh, we would be much happier paying lunch prices for that meh than dinner prices.
Jungsik is located in Gangnam, as was our hotel. However, this was a different part of Gangnam, full of plastic surgery centers, fashionable young Koreans, boutique shops and hipster restaurants. This was the part of Gangnam everyone pictures.
The restaurant is nestled inside of a non-descript building in an alley. We took an elevator up to their floor and emerged into a mostly beige, minimalistic, serenely quite space, with windows overlooking Dosan Park.
The two lunch options were the “choice tasting lunch,” a five course meal that the diner takes a hand in assembling, selecting one of the two to four dishes within each category; appetizer, rice/noodle, main (fish), main (meat), and dessert, for the extremely reasonable price of 44,000 won (or about $44 pp) with the occasional 5,000 won supplement. The other option was the pre-arranged chef’s tasting menu, a six course affair offered at 66,000 won. Our goal was to try as many dishes as possible, which resulted in an order of three choice tasting menus and one chefs tasting. We literally had one (and in some cases two) of everything on the menu.
Our server and sommelier was a young, very professional, very knowledgable man named Donghuyk, who guided us through our wine pairing and starter cocktail orders. I believe we ended up with two glasses of bubbly with…pomegranate? (complete with flower petals) and two very refreshing gin drinks with healthy doses of cucumber bobbing along the top.
As we enjoyed our cocktails, our lovely amuse arrived. The real bummer is, I am writing this in October, but we had this meal last May. I don’t remember a ton about what was in each dish, etc. though certain items are still very clear in my memory. Either way, you can get a look and feel for their cuisine from these photos and my limited descriptions.
This crusty, spice laden bread is one of the items that stands out, and really gets the old salivary glands going. We are so spoiled, as San Franciscan’s, when it comes to bread. This type of artisanal loaf was a rare find on our trip…in fact, up to this point, we had had none. Pastry, yes. Crusty loaf, no. Layering spices into said crusty loaf? Genius. Add some soft, ultra fat, salty butter? Climax.
We were able to get one of every starter. First up, the octopus. Soft like buttah.
And this wonderfully minimal preparation of mushrooms, served with little interference by the kitchen. The ingredients spoke for themselves.
A nicoise-esque salad:
As well as this show stopper; the beef tartare, which came topped with a poofy, airy, pastry shell, filled magically with delicate microgreens. We were all pretty smitten with this guy. One, for the craftsmanship required in making the shell itself, and two, for the sport of eating it, which involved lightly hammering it with a knife in order to reveal the hidden treasures inside.
The fish course began with the sea urchin rice, another dish that really stood out to both me and Randi. It completely encompassed the taste, and the feeling, of a walk on the beach. The urchin was so fresh, and briny and soft, and the rice gave it that sandy, poppy texture. The chef really accomplished what I believe he set out to do by evoking not just wonderful flavor, but the memory and feel of a time and a place.
Another tuna dish arrived,
And then this incredibly rich and decadent lobster bisque.
The Jeju snapper was another huge hit, mostly due to the sauce on the plate, which, if I remember right, tasted intensely of rich and robust shellfish stock.
On to the meat course, which included lamb,
And this decomposed pork dish, which was not only fun to eat, but also a nice way to experience classic Korean flavors, paired down to their simplist form.
All of the desserts were absolutely phenomenal, and like most of the previous dishes, worked to incorporate traditional and modern, local and global.
The cherry blossom was really delicate and well-balanced, light and fruity, with a deep hit of cacao from that dark chocolate twig.
The last two desserts were both, I think reflections of Dosan park, upon which the restaurant sits. These aren’t the best pictures; in person these desserts were truly beautiful and what they had for looks, they did not lack in flavor.