This article was also published in the Financial Times.
While finding the restaurants of Seoul, South Korea – the city that is home to the G20 conference next month – remains a challenge even to the city's taxi drivers, thanks to the unusual absence of street names, I was fortunate enough to be able to call on an international cast of experts.
Firstly, there was Alex the Korean, who explained, en route to a Buddhist meal at Baru, the somewhat basic restaurant opposite the city's main Buddhist temple, that it is the balance of his country's diet that is as important and beneficial as the actual ingredients. It should be 70% carbohydrates, 20% protein and 10% fat, a lesson perhaps for many in the West.
Highlights of our 10-course dinner included a salad with a spicy pine-nut dressing; vegetable pancakes; and sushi rice topped with slices of raw pine mushrooms currently in season; as well as the request not to take more on my plate than I could eat.
But the absence of meat, fish, dairy and, of course, alcohol did set me up for a 4.30 am start the following morning to Noryangjin, the city's wholesale fish market. This is considerably smaller, but much friendlier, than Tokyo's more famous Tsukiji market, and here the auction revolves around boxes of live halibut and bass rather than tuna.
At 7 am, Michael the Canadian interpreter and Paul the Australian chef led me past the stall selling and repairing knives for the fish vendors and the city's chefs and up a wooden flight of stairs into the Cabin restaurant. With its white-washed verandah, the Cabin would not look out of place on a New England beach. Its view, however, is far more urban. It is of a subway station full of commuters.
Breakfast included sushi, a peppery soup made from the bones of the fish used for sushi topped with vegetables and chrysanthemum flowers, and a very local 'delicacy' of diced, still wriggling, squid.
As these dishes, and the condiments that form an integral part of every Korean meal, arrived simultaneously, Paul Schenk, who oversees 450 Korean chefs at the InterContinental Hotel, explained that it is the feeling that everyone has to share that initially makes those who are not used to the Korean style of eating feel uncomfortable. 'At first, I think there's a sense that it's slightly unhygienic. But once you get used to it, it's great', he added, digging in.
When I asked Charles the American, now on a return posting to a city he obviously loves, for specific recommendations, he just smiled. 'This city is changing so quickly that restaurants move and reinvent themselves faster than any other place I know. But if you like fried oysters, plumper, fresher and far less expensive than Europe, I know just the place.'
And so we set out for his favourite haunt, located, he described, in a rabbit warren of restaurants close to City Hall. But even as we approached the other side of the street, he broke into a run and then stopped in amazement. Not just the rabbit warren but the entire block were gone and all that currently exists is a vast empty hole in the ground waiting for the next skyscraper. I took Charles's arm and bought him a consoling bimimbap, the national dish of rice, vegetables, minced beef topped with a fried egg that is served in a bowl almost as hot as the gochujang, red chilli paste, that accompanies it.
The tension between the old and the new in Seoul's skyline is mirrored in the make up of its restaurants. But I never expected to find anywhere quite as exquisite as Jeon-Won, home to the gracious Madame Moon Boon Sun (pictured). Home in every sense because Jeon-Won means 'garden' and the herbs and pots of fermenting kimchi, cabbage, on the first floor verandah show how little certain ingredients travel.
Other delicacies arrived on two trays, eventually bringing over 30 small dishes to our low wooden table, including a thin kimchi omelette; tender slices of octopus; diced lotus root with pine nuts; edible leaves from Ulllung island, north east of Korea, for wrapping the myriad of vegetables; tofu with red pepper; and an immaculately grilled mackerel.
For those who prefer Italian food (and there are reported to be over 8,000 Italian restaurants in Seoul) and even more intimacy, Madame Moon's son runs La Campagna next door. It has four seats at one small counter opposite the kitchen and is the smallest restaurant I have ever seen.
Modern Korean cooking is best expressed at Poom and at Jung Sik Dang and while the former, under chef/proprietor Young Hee Roh, has the advantage of a stunning location and an open kitchen elegantly integrated into the restaurant, I found several of her dishes unconvincing.
Jung Sik Dang was, however, exciting, most memorably for a fried grasshopper salad, a dish of rice, anchovy and turnip, pork belly with pickled chili and ginseng macaroons.
Jung Sik Yim, the chef, has plans to open in New York. If the nascent roots of exciting modern Korean cooking are to be nurtured successfully, I hope his passport is confiscated so that he can concentrate on this one restaurant.
Jung Sik Dang, www.jungsikdang.com
The Cabin, 0082 02 812 6200
Jeon-Won, 0082 02 2278 3096