Michelin in Seoul: Disaster Guaranteed? (3)
With intermittent and minor deadlines, it takes much longer to come back for the third installment. Before getting into the topic, few notes:
- It is still not clear that the launch of Green guide has been confirmed. In fact, I found out that the recent news about the launch with specific timeline disappeared mostly on internet, when I had started writing the article about a month ago. I do not really know why. While I am not a big fan of any kind of conspiracy theory, what does this possibly mean? Does the representative of guide wants it to be under the water for desired period of time? Or has the plan been rescinded? I don’t know.
- How about marketing, the potential outcome of guide’s launching? The origin of the guide is, as you might know, to sell of the tires at the dawn of automobile era. The guide can help the expansion of tire brand, the main business sector of Michelin. However, Korea is the rare exception as the domestic brands are dominating. In other words, it wouldn’t be much help to sell tires even if the guide launches. This might affect the decision.
With that mind, let’s get into the topic. What was it? Even I can’t remember very well, with a month of hiatus(if you cannot remember the discussion, please read previous installments: 1 & 2). Yes, it was about candidacy: how the restaurants in Seoul would fare if the guide launches? I want to present both of the perspective: mine and Michelin’s(***/***). It is a kind of breakdown, but please be noted that I focus only on Korean and Western cuisine.
Pierre Gagniere Seoul: this should be the test case, a so-called ‘litmus’ of the guide upon launching. Will the guide give out three stars? Think about it: it is the only restaurant managed by star (and French) chef with worldwide popularity. Why is it the only one after all those years? How about other chefs? It is a great question, but not for this article, and to be honest, I think that always tells something about the culinary culture of Seoul (there are always rumors of some brand of chefs launching, and I heard about some recently but… ) Anyway, I have never felt this one keeps up with whatever value or philosophy the old chef has established over fifty years.
When I had an interview last year, he was nice and diplomatic about keeping quality of all of his global post, but I could read between the lines that he didn’t enjoy the current situation. After first couple years, it always fails to guarantee certain level of quality and detail. However, it is a still Pierre Gagniere restaurant-something from iconic French Chef whose brand has spread out globally. In addition to that, atmosphere of the restaurant is great with that luxury interior(not my taste, anyway). These factors should be counted for the stars. I do not think it deserves three, but if the guide launches, it seems that they don’t have the choice but to give them out. Simply put, threes stars or bust. ( */*** )
L’espoir: this can be another ‘litmus.’ What kind of restaurants or genre the guide and inspectors prefer to focus in Seoul? Should that be related to Korean cuisine, however loose the tie or the concept might be? Considering the scale of the city, it doesn’t need to be if I were to them. They should be open to everything, as do for other cities. Therefore, L’espoir should be considered long and hard, considering its relative longevity and quality of food. I do not think their food is no longer belongs to emulation or representation of French bistro cuisine; more refined and reinterpreted with modern touch, except dessert(please, make them better for the sake of savory food you serve). Anyway, they cook the food certainly and firmly belongs to western cuisine, which is very rare in Seoul. (**/* )
Merciel: they should be considered, no matter what.
Speaking of Korean oriented ones…
Jungsik: Oh, they still retain two stars in New York… Good for them. In Seoul, they will always be remembered as a bad precedent, with perpetually imperfect concept after all those years. I believe their ‘New Korean’ concept had hit the wall in last year’s visits. Don’t get me wrong; I still believe there are plenty of undeveloped ideas in Korean *traditional* cuisine, awating reinterpretation and modernization. All the issues I believe these “crossover” restaurants have are stemmed from their intentional negligence from *tradition*. In other words, I don’t think they know Korean cuisine enough to reinterpret for contemporary fine dining context. However with good wine list and modern atmosphere, I believe they will be considered, for more than one star. Doesn’t Michelin want to match stars in New York at least? This is their home ground. And it is unfortunate. ( /**)
Mingles: I was really surprised when I heard that there are many to consider Mingles as a legitimate Michelin material. For me, it is simply an abomination. I actually write the review for this month’s Olive Magazine Korea. If you are curious about my opinion, please see for yourself. I would’ve been much happier if all the unpleasantness I had tasted in their food was the outcome of poor execution. However, they weren’t. The whole concept is just wrong. Collectively, they were certainly the worst dining experience in terms of pure flavor. I wouldn’t give any stars to them if I were the inspector. But hey! Who am I to judge? I am anything but. My overall impression: it seems to be a strategic decision to cook such kind of food and develop such kind of flavor to please rankings and guides, and I believe they are successful, but to the expense of tastebuds. Sad. ( /*)
Soigne: I don’t care about their concept much; for me, ‘contemporary’ is some kind of umbrella term to cover up ambiguity of concept in most cases. Contemporary and fusion are the most mislead and misunderstood term, especially in cuisine(for the details, please refer the last month review of Olive Magazine Korea about Soinee). But their food is a lot more edible than Jungsik, Mingles or any other restaurants helmed by young chef. Their flavor profile falls on more reasonable territory than the other two, and when they are not ‘in the weed’, the execution is excellent. I can still savor their quail, which was cooked perfectly. With that bar setting and personal but professional service, the whole experience can be great there. (*/*)
Kwonsooksoo: if you want to talk about contemporary or modern in Korean cuisine, this should be the starting point. The most important fact is that there are no missing link between what we have been believing as Korean cuisine and their food. Most dots are closely and securely connected. There still are conceptual inconsistencies here and there, but they cook meaningful food in both concept and execution. I like their beverage paring overall, but their wine program should be expanded much, much more than what it is now. Still much room to grow, but it is refined and exciting as is. (**/*)
Rayeon: while their food is solid in execution and successful in concept, service always lacks detail. It is not just Rayeon’s issue but entire hotel’s. They look very nice in almost every aspects of experience, but always miss something. Always. It is very odd, considering that Hotel should provide a nice infrastructure for solid service, at least here in Korea. But it never happens. Still, it is a very strong candidate, with advantage on Korean-oriented cuisine to the eye of the guide. Sophisticated execution and flavor, but the wine pairing needs to be improved; very perfunctory. (*/**)
Chorokbaguni: gosh, it looks so funny spelled in English… Anyway, most would laugh just by the fact that I am trying to include this restaurant into the discussion. In fact, I have not visited them for a while, with some funky reasons I don’t want to divulge here (not my fault, for sure). However, their food is the most developed one, in terms of modernization of Korean cuisine. It is not something you take lightly, but I never feel that this restaurant has garnered the credit it surely deserves. (*/ )
For *traditional* Korean restaurants, I don’t see how many would fit for even candidacy. For me, pure Korean style grill restaurants don’t have any merit, as there is no cooking in the kitchen involved. Same for the Hanjeongsik, a table full of banchan extravaganza. Do anyone cares the harmony and combination of flavor when cooking and bringing out that diverse(not) kind dish at once? For the guide, it can look like legit food culture or even cuisine, so there is always a possibility. Maybe some kind of “deal” to give certain number of stars to certain kind of food and restaurant? It is also possible.
Pyongyang Naengmyun: maybe the only Korean dish has become a genre, truly specialized form of food? In other words, you can’t eat ‘PyongNaeng’ in almost every Korean restaurant, like Bulgogi. Most Pyongyang Naengmyun places offer bulgogi for sure, but it isn’t be the case vice versa. Therefore I will look into this category first if I were the inspector. For me, the candidacy always comes down two: Wooraeok and Byeokje Galbi. Which one is superior? Which one is the better restaurant overall ? I have long believe that the former is superior, but no more: flavor, the only advantage I believe they have, has been more harsh with garlic clouding over everything.
Overall, Wooraeok seems stuck in the past in almost every aspect of dining experience. You don’t need to change the menu if you believe that is a tradition to keep, but how about the beverage? Only with tasteless domestic beer, saccharine soju and Majuang, the worst kind of wine choice, the dining experience suffers and downgraded a notch. Moreover, they need more refinement. Have you ever ordered beef tongue? Yes, they have it… frozen. So if you order it out of curiosity or nostalgia(or sentiment), the staff will bring frozen solid slices of beef tongue on the grill. Yes, you can experience of cooking the beef tongue from the scratch, I mean thawing. The vapor coming out from the tongue, which will get rubber pretty fast… is exciting scene. Oh, and they still do not prepare half size Naengmyun in Kitchen while Byeokje Galbi does; servers divide it in the station, which is actually cabinets right below the window. No caring.
Meanwhile, I believe the latter, Byeokje Galbi goes exact opposite direction, meaning they are doing too much with all the brand and too many options in menu, at least they try to modernize, such as more active inclusion of wine or ‘prime’ kimchi(extra paid order). Their prime kimchi doesn’t really taste ‘prime’, but I commend their attempt. Isn’t that the way Korean cuisine should pursue? Trimming down meaningless banchans?
One last possibility: something completely unexpected, out of left field can be a surprise star awardee… such as soondae?
Ok. this is it. As I have previously mentioned, I have written about the guide much more than I want for last 4-5 years, Hopefully, the next writing about the topic is about the real guide of Seoul. However, to be completely honest, I don’t want it to happen for at least next 4-5 years. More than anything, I still don’t believe it is the time; we still need more maturing and seasoning to prevent the disaster.