Saturday, April 22nd , 2017
Seoul is the bustling capital of South Korea, with a population of ten million. Michelin recently released their inaugural guide to Seoul with 24 starred establishments, so I felt obliged to pay it a visit. The city itself is modern, efficient and spotlessly clean, with quite heavy traffic despite the extensive subway system. If visiting the city then you can take a tour of the border zone with North Korea, which is just thirty miles away. The DMZ (de militarised zone) that has since 1953 marked the border is a 4 km stretch of land with considerable military presence on either side. The DMZ itself is a wildlife haven, at least provided you are an animal not heavy enough to set off a landmine. You can visit the railway station at Panmunjom, from where a solitary railway line connects the two countries and was used to transport freight when the two Koreas had somewhat less frosty relations and maintained a series of factories on the northern side of the DMZ. These were paid for by the south, with the north providing cheap labour, the south paying for the goods in hard currency, so benefiting both sides. At that time South Koreans were allowed to visit the north as tourists. though the tourism was suspended in July 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot. The factories were shut in February 2016 after a North Korean nuclear test, and the station that you can visit at the border is now an eerie, empty shell. You can also visit one of the infiltration tunnels dug under the DMZ by North Korea in the 1970s, though if you are tall then this this is a somewhat uncomfortable experience as the tunnel was designed to (just) fit the relatively diminutive North Korean infantry.
Back in Seoul I tried both the Korean restaurants that were awarded three stars by Michelin. Gaon serves traditional Korean food in a menu style reminiscent of kaiseki, with a set menu of a number of courses culminating in rice and pickles. This place has no dining room but rather five private rooms, and the hefty prices reflect this arrangement. The food was, to be honest, pretty disappointing. It is a step up from the Korean restaurants in New Malden in terms of presentation, but at the end of the day it is essentially a series of grilled dishes followed by a bowl of rice.
It was only a marginally better story at the other three star, La Yeon at the Shilla hotel. This has a smart dining room with a view, but although there was one nice dish of pen shell salad, again here the dishes were decent but simple, the ingredients not noteworthy. To add to the joy, wine markups in Seoul are outrageous, and the size of the bill at these places was the only thing that was three star. There are no luxury ingredients like the langoustines, turbot or marbled beef of French or Japanese cuisine, no elaborate sauces that you would find in a three star in France, none of the gorgeous presentation of a Japanese kaiseki meal or the elaborate pastries of a French dessert course. Ingredients in Korea are quite limited. I was told independently by two people (one a head chef) that there is just a solitary variety of apple in Korea, and similarly a single variety of potato available. Hence quite why Michelin felt it appropriate to award three stars, or indeed any, to these places is a matter for their conscience. I am sure it is unconnected to the guide being sponsored by the Korean tourist board.
It is possible to encounter classy food in Seoul, in the form of Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant at the top of the Lotte hotel. Many of the ingredients here are imported from France or Japan, and the technique on display in the kitchen was impressive. The dessert section in the kitchen in particular is top class, and this was thoroughly deserving of the two Michelin stars that it was granted.