High end Korean food is counterintuitive to the type of Korean food I grew up with. I would eat the food that my mom made me, or the meals that the church ladies would prepare every Sunday. The flavors in this type of homestyle prep are strong. The kimchee is intense, the mung bean daenjang is even more so. You can usually smell Korean food from a mile away, and when you see all the bright red and orange flavors on your plate, you know exactly what you’re in for.
Which is why I initially was violently opposed to restaurants that specialized in high-end Korean cooking. Korean food should be homey and inexpensive and a little messy to look at. Those were the signs that made it authentic, because that’s how my mom made it. But the trends in Korea are changing. The younger generation doesn’t always want to eat intensely marinated things all the time. They like cleaner, lighter flavors. And the whole foodie culture is big in Korea, so it makes sense that Koreans would adopt a modern, inventive approach to their own food.
On a recent trip to Korea, I had lunch at Yeon Ha Deung in Gangnam, and I was blown away by how good Korean fine dining could be. First of all, the space itself is beautiful. You feel like you’re entering an exclusive salon, and each party gets its own private room, so the luxurious tone is set from the very beginning. The service is also so much better, an improvement from the places in Ktown where the ajoomas can make you feel like the smallest person on earth. And most importantly, the refined and restrained cooking style is eye-opening. If we’re open to high-end and fast casual burger joints (Minetta Tavern $32 Black Label Burger vs. Shake Shack), then why not do the same for Korean food? There’s room for both the fancy and the humble.
The weekend lunch set menu here is a very good deal at 38,000 won (~$32). It comes with 5 courses, ban chan side dishes, a bowl of naengmyun noodles and dessert. Everything was so beautiful and delicate, and the progression of flavors from the mild to the strong was a gradual progression. The first course was a very light and mild soup, followed by a salad in bright yuzu dressing, and then a stunning presentation of raw fish “swimming” inside a culinary fish bowl.
For our mains, we had the pork bo ssam and the grilled steak. Bo ssam is usually a hearty affair, and restaurants in the States play that up with huge plates of fat slabs of pork belly ready for you to dig into. You get fewer pieces here, but the impact is no less. The payoff is even bigger with the ground beef steak, which was my favorite course. Koreans really know how to treat their meat.
The naengmyun was so refreshing. I usually don’t like naenmyun in the States, as I find that the broth tastes too much like cucumbers and brine, but the naengmyun at Yeon Ha Deung went down quite easy. What I loved even more was that I wasn’t stuffed and paranoid that my breath smelled like garlic, because, let’s be honest, sometimes a Korean meal leaves you in that kind of a state. I might have to shell out a few more bucks for the experience, but it’s worth the money.
Yeon Ha Deung Restaurant
33, Seolleung-ro 152-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea, 06016