Less than 24 hours in any city, let alone one where the language is an issue, coupled with the challenge of finding a good dinner as an added imperative, can present a challenge to even the most experienced traveller.
That was my preoccupation recently in Seoul, South Korea, and one that really focused my attention on where we were to stay and, more importantly, where we should eat. The location had to be close to the airport but ideally not an ‘airport hotel’.
The boutique Art Paradiso hotel within the massive Paradise City shopping and arts complex, a development large enough to be clearly visible as our plane descended into Incheon airport from Yantai China en route to Hong Kong, seemed the ideal solution.
And so it was to prove, once our taxi driver had managed to find the hotel’s entrance and after we had managed to locate the lift to the hotel reception on the third floor. The hotel is very new and of the modern, black variety, but with light switches that were, unusually, agreeably easy to navigate.
The restaurant is called Serasé, an entirely concocted name I discovered, and it fulfils every criteria of an extremely smart location. The room is long and large with a dramatic series of modern white chandeliers down the centre, over a long central white table – a sort of luxurious Wagamama. The waiting staff are notably well attired, the management in crisp suits and ties, the waitresses in red jackets and black trousers. With low but not ridiculously low lighting, there is an air of intrigue about the room.
At the far end is the open kitchen, where all the chefs are dressed in equally smart black uniforms, and the steam rises to the ceiling drawn by the obviously efficient extraction system.
We had arrived shortly after 8pm and the restaurant was already quietening down. The few other diners, young Koreans in the main, were leaving. By the time we had chosen what to eat, we were the restaurant’s only diners.
How much difference did this make to our meal? Well, certainly if Serasé had been busier, then we would not have the waiting staff’s undivided attention, supplemented by the waiting skills of Chef Wonho Lee, who appeared just after our soup course was served.
But I do not believe that the restaurant being as quiet as it was altered our experience that much. The intensity on the faces of the young chefs and their collective enthusiasm and professionalism – factors that today make eating out in any city worldwide such a pleasure – were here only too obvious.
Only set menus, headed ‘bistronomy', were available: one at 100,000 won (£66.90) and the other at 150,000 won (£100). We chose the former, one of us choosing lobster with natto, fermented Japanese beans, as our main course, the other the Korean beef – both of us foregoing the Austrian (which almost certainly should have been Australian) ‘rock’ (rack??) of lamb, which was the third alternative.
We began in some style with a series of three amuse bouches of which one was fantastic, a small triangle of toast topped with Italian sevruga caviar that certainly raised the bar for anything that was to follow.
The kitchen rose to the challenge with the next two courses. The first was a dish of snow crab salad enlivened by a couple of slices of strawberry of almost English unctuous sweetness alongside a pesto of wild greens. The second, described somewhat mysteriously as pumpkin porridge en croute, soon revealed itself as a dish of far greater charm than it sounded. It was, in fact, a pumpkin soup, the rich liquid further enriched with chestnuts and slices of black truffles and topped with the thinnest of pastry lids.
By this stage we were also enjoying an extraordinarily good bottle of wine, a Barolo Bussia 2012 from Giacomo Fenocchio that was on the restaurant’s keenly priced wine list for 90,000 won (£60). This was a bottle that, with both freshness and intensity, not only went extremely well with our diverse main courses but also lifted the very different flavours that we were to enjoy.
There had to be a slight dip and this duly came with our (beautifully presented) main courses, not as much for what they were as their one-dimensional flavour profile.
With our dessert, a scoop of jeju hanrabong (a fruit similar to an orange but with a thicker skin grown on Korea’s Jeju island) ice cream that managed to be both creamy and refreshing, the whole enriched by thin pieces of white chocolate, we were assured that the kitchen was back on firmer ground once again. And this, together with the collection of Korean ‘petits fours' and a cup of traditional Korean tea also signalled that there is a considerable talent within Serasé’s pastry section.
I paid my bill of just under 300,000 won (£200) for two willingly. The Paradise City complex is of course a highly commercial affair with most of its attractions obvious from the restaurant in the enormous shopping mall it overlooks. Although at the nearby art gallery there is a collection of serious appeal to anyone, with floors dedicated to Anthony Gormley and Jeff Koons among others.
But it was the cooking of Chef Lee and his team, ably supported by a highly motivated management, that most impressed. An impression enhanced by the fact that dinner and breakfast were kimchee free.