Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.
Fit for a king … or queen
Several of the city’s best dining options are a custom fit for group dinners and lunches—after all, Seoul is a business destination. In fact, the most successful authentic Korean restaurants are made up almost entirely of private rooms. Case in point is Jinjinbara, with six locations across the city. It specializes in traditional hanjeongsik (multi-course meals inspired by what kings would have eaten back in the days of the dynasties). Delicately prepared side dishes, including kimchi (spicy cabbage), pickled vegetables, fried vegetable pancakes, cold noodles, seaweed and mushrooms beautifully frame various fish, beef and pork “main” dishes, and rice, which is served last. Some smaller tables can be had by asking your concierge to phone or email the restaurant to check on availability.
Mingles in Gangnam has earned its rep as one of the city’s “it” restaurants for turning hanjeongsik on its head with infusions of Japanese, French and Italian flavour and techniques. It also looks like an artists’ studio, with its earthy décor and eclectic scattering of pottery and artwork. Top Cloud, in contrast, personifies modern Korean luxury at its most extreme. Rooted with soft, live jazz, the sky-high restaurant rolls out elaborate buffet-style and set menu options along with gracious service, a very futuristic décor scheme and 360-degree vistas.
Meat lovers shouldn’t leave Seoul without a visit to a sizzling, savoury Korean barbecue. Though not fancy, Chamsookgol has the requisite private rooms on its upper floors for group dining and is renowned for generous portions of perfectly marinated beef cooked at the table, and tons of side dishes and condiments. We wash the feast down with Cass, one of Korea’s fizzy, food-friendly beers.
With street food being as en vogue as fine dining everywhere in the world—and especially in Korea—Gwangjang Market lives up to its hype by Anthony Bourdain and others from the west have established. The aromas generated by such treats as mungbean pancakes, tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes in a spicier pepper paste sauce), odeng (fish cakes) and other fried snacks, dumplings and soups make the quest a worthwhile pursuit. Furthermore, everything is proffered with great showmanship by grandmotherly ajummas (Korean ladies).
What’s in store
Make no mistake, Koreans love their international labels, and one can find them in force in the Apgujeong area. While Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Ferragamo draw local fashionistas, higher-end Korean labels and street fashion can be found at spots like Dover Street Market, Boon the Shop and MIK 24/7. Myeong-dong, adjacent to the North Seoul Tower, is full-blown urban Asian capitalism and earned comparisons to Tokyo’s Shibuya district by Vogue. Go here for the ultimate people-watching experience, especially as international high street stores like Zara and Uniqlo dominate.
In Dongdaemun, architect Zaha Hadid is not the only one making a bold fashion statement. In the home of Seoul Fashion Week, savvy shoppers can literally get lost in style at countless boutiques housed in shopping complexes like Doota (a favourite haunt of mine from my 2009 trip, where I picked up pewter gladiator sandals that I just can’t part with) and other fashion market buildings housing local designers. Some venues are open well into the early morning hours. Those in power-shopping mode can refuel at Dongdaemun Market’s street food stalls. Avid bargain hunters may also be pleased to discover that some of the same embroidered bags, enamel boxes and other craft items can be unmined in some of the shops and kiosks at Gwangjang Market.
Although Insadong is no longer a new shopping neighbourhood discovery (I still wear the delicate silver fan and cherry blossom earrings I splurged on in ’09), several one-off stores and street vendors amid more obvious souvenir places hawking embroidery and celadon pottery are worth your time. The tiny mall with tinier boutiques in the centre of the neighbourhood, as well as the little alley offshoots, are as addictive as ever. Two Cats Café, three floors above the street, is warm and welcoming, complete with irresistible Scottish folds and tabbies.
The real find of my recent trip, however, is the business district surrounding historic Bukchon Hanok Village, tucked away between the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgun palaces. The area, which is a living, breathing neighbourhood and not a tourist section, is by its very design quiet, intimate and private (i.e. it is no longer a site covered by walking tours, at the urging of its current residents). Consequently, art galleries, specialty museums, jewellery stores and clothing boutiques have done an excellent job of extending the character of the Hanok homes into their properties. The coffee house DooRoo feels like you could be inside one of those homes, with its bookshelves, artwork, sepia lighting and wooden furnishings. And yes, some of the best coffee and hot cocoa in town can be found here.
In an air travel climate where space is both a luxury and a necessity, Korean Air’s Prestige Class (80 seats occupying the upper deck of the Airbus A380 jet) feels like a day spa in the sky. While the seats run a touch narrow, there’s an abundance of legroom and a very generous tray table set-up for people who work in flight. The trays move in a variety of directions, and power outlets are easily accessible. The airline’s soft signature blue provides a calming milieu, and flight (save for the announcements) is so quiet you can hear the proverbial pin drop.
The flight attendants in both directions epitomize the graciousness present at Seoul’s better hotels (such as the Four Seasons). And while the service is attentive (down to the lead flight attendant personally thanking you for your selecting Korean Air), the service is not intrusive. Those looking for a quick stretch can also check out the bar, which has a lovely “private jet” feel to it.
Amenities, while simple, are lovely. The masculine in-flight kit, filled with Davi (as in Robert Mondavi) wine-based unisex skin care products, embossed with the 2018 Olympics logo, reflects management clearly knows who their business customer is. The entertainment system is superb, with a generous choice of current and classic movies. The headphones provided could be a little better so fliers can appreciate the care that went into the systems.
While “excellence in flight” has a small ways to go when it comes to consistency in the food, the wine and spirits programme is nicely done, and features Perrier Jouet Champagne and quality wines from Bordeaux and the US.
Many in the west think they know Seoul through major global corporations like LG and Samsung and pop-cultural forces like SM Entertainment (not to mention that ‘Gangnam Style’ song from 2012). However, the truth of the matter is that Seoul is timeless and deserves deeper exploration. It is also quite admirable that its tourism board is one of the most adept in the world in terms of not only getting businesses and business people to think outside the box, but also get them to physically go outside get outside of it.
Go ahead and order yourself that extra large coffee when you get to Seoul. Enjoy the buzz the city has crafted so intently. •
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Selected team Instagram accounts Jack Yan | Summer Rayne Oakes | Sopheak Seng | Elyse Glickman | Lola Cristall | Jody Miller | Sarah Arnold-Hall | Jamie Dorman | Doug Rimington | Tanya Sooksombatisatian | Alex Barrow