A gastronomy tour through Seoul and Tokyo
Armed with chopsticks, eager gastronomes head to re-opening borders seeking the best of local and international cuisines to wow taste buds and provide the ultimate taste of place. Two of the most dynamic emerging dining scenes are in Seoul, Korea and Tokyo, Japan.
Discovery abounds in Seoul as the veil is about to be lifted on a new Michelin book. Korean cuisine is one of the most dynamic in the world, and is composed of a panoply of dishes, complex and interactive, that range from sweet to sour to salty to spicy. Move over K-pop. Hello K-food!
One cannot visit Seoul without dining in the cosmopolitan districts of Itaewon-dong, Apgujeong-dong and Hongdae. The unique cafes, buskers and dance performances in Hongdae, and the neon lights and fashion boutiques in Apgujeong, attract youth culture, and are the best places for people-watching. Lined with, indie shops, hip hop clubs and upscale bistros, a vibrant and eclectic pulse sets the evening alight, while we ignite our palates at a Korean barbecue. In the centre of our table, a canister of hot coal is topped with a grill.
One by one, we set marinated slices of sweet and savoury beef, pork and thickly cut vegetables to cook to smoky goodness. Paired with a refreshing soju, it’s the ultimate barbecue experience. It just doesn’t get any better than this. There are so many stand-outs, but Chungmuro Jjukkumi Bulgogi is an institution. It’s known for webfoot octopus marinated in a bright red, mildly sweet and spicy sauce, and grilled over charcoal. Geumdwaeji Sikdang is a popular spot for its fine cuts of YBD pig, a cross breed of Yorkshire, Berkshire and Duroc. This is such a uniquely firm, meaty and juicy pork, cooked on a cast-iron grill over coal briquettes, and it is not-to-be-missed. Kyoyang Siksa specializes in lamb barbecue. Three cuts of tender Australian lamb: French rack, ribs, and loin steak, are all grilled tableside to a perfect succulence.
For health-conscious diners, A Flower Blossom on the Rice uses only certified organic ingredients sourced straight from the farm. The signature dish is the Bojagi Bibimbap, a multi-coloured arrangement of vegetables atop rice, all enwrapped in a thin egg omelet and tied together with a seaweed ribbon and a flower. It looks and tastes like a gift from the kitchen.
Chef Sung Anh’s Mosu re-imagines Korean cuisine to new heights of innovation. His signature dish is Burdock bark, featuring a single exquisitely crisp burdock chip lacquered in a thin sheet of burdock root with syrup. Each dish reveals simple yet nuanced ingredients like Amberjack aged and enlivened in the citrus of green tangerine.
Fermentation and aging are the two fundamentals of Korean cuisine. Nowhere are these traditional techniques more elevated than at 7th Door, which symbolizes “the seven tastes of food.” The idea is that beyond the five basic tastes, there is the taste of fermentation and aging, and then the sensibility of the chef. The mystique that precedes dining here becomes replaced by an unforgettably unique culinary experience. Joo Ok also celebrates the traditional methods of fermentation by using 30 different varieties of fermented condiments, as well as offering shots of house-made vinegar as an aperitif. The philosophy of this kitchen is to channel the energies of earth and sea through consciously-sourced produce, fish, seafood and meat varieties only found in Korea.
Respecting the seasonality of seafood and the fresh produce grown on the chef’s family farm, combined with the chef’s own creativity, Olh Eum conveys a true taste of Korea. Shrimp and sea urchin capellini is lavished in a velvety-smooth sauce made with freshwater shrimp heads, fermented fish sauce and doenjang. Smoked striploin carpaccio served with mushroom and soy sauce consommé is ambrosial.
No city in the world has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Tokyo. It’s also where we find the most meticulous French cuisine where reverence to classic French technique is matched with impeccably artful Japanese presentation. From high end haute-cuisine to flavour-forward izakayas, the list of must-try Tokyo restaurants to meet every taste is endless.
Tokyo is made up of neighbourhoods that, combined, offer a veritable buffet of experiences, each with a special day and time. Saturday, it’s Ginza, for shopping high-end brands; sampling delectable goodies from the immaculate underground “food garden;” and sipping espresso at one of the many bistro tables that line the centre of the street. Sunday, we pass through Harajuku where everything is “kawaii,” and teaming youth, decked out in the most eccentric collages of textiles, make-up and accessories colourize the scene. I order 3-D latte art with a foaming Hello Kitty protruding from my cup, sit back and people-watch. As evening approaches, we head to the glowing red lanterns of pop-up Yokocho restaurant scenes under bridges and along narrow alleyways like in Shinjuku, where townhouse-style yakitori stalls seating up to ten patrons, offer skewered soy-glazed meats, fish and vegetables cooked on charcoal burners and paired with cold beer and saké.
For every dish, there is a specialty restaurant. The ultimate tempura is found at Tempura Maehira. The art is in controlling the temperature at every moment, so this chef uses two different oils and we watch as he constantly adjusts the heat dials. For light-flavoured white-fleshed fish or squid, roasted oil adds a delicate complement. Stronger flavours, like uni, require a harmonizing of a light oil and a sesame oil. The batter provides a delicate, light crunch, and is so thin and fragrant to elevate each seasonal ingredient.
Soba varies across Japan. Soba Osame sources the most complete range of rustic-flavoured fresh soba noodles from north to south, and then, in Edomae-style, dry-ages them over years in vacuum-sealed containers at low temperatures to heighten the flavours.
Sustainability is Tokyo’s latest trend. Nowhere is it more beautifully expressed than at Nœud. TOKYO. The name is an old French word for “knot,” and the idea is to bind people, environment and food together. The set menu focuses on preparing a single vegetable in a variety of ways by incorporating a delicate use of oils and fats to elicit natural flavours.
Japanese and French cuisines coalesce meticulously at Les Saisons with the virtuosity of renowned French chef Thierry Voisin. Paté of wild duck with quince enrobed in liver with an onion purée and poached pear is a rich medley of bold flavours and textures. Brilliant shellfish sauce heightens crisply seared red tilefish perched atop a seaweed butter-scented potato and garlic sea urchin.
Two exalted cuisines in Japan are Kaiseki ryori, multi-course menus reflecting the local nature, season and personality of the chef; and Shojin ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Both are harmonized into one menu at Daigo. Ingredients are sourced every morning and nourished into dishes like carrot and burdock soup with deep fried potatoes, bracken fern tempura and soba noodles with green onions, Japanese mustard and seaweed.
The robust flavours and refined artistry of the Seoul and Tokyo dining scenes are unrivalled in their harmonizing of tradition and innovation. It’s tradition in evolution. These are two pillars of the most refined gastronomy in Asia. They tantalize our taste buds and send us into culinary bliss. It’s time to make some reservations.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.