News that Michelin will be launching its first hotel and restaurant guide for Seoul is the latest sign pointing to the city’s burgeoning fine dining scene and rise of neo-Korean cuisine.
In a few weeks, the bustling South Korean capital will be crawling with anonymous Michelin inspectors, who possess the power to pronounce which restaurants are splurge-worthy, and which should be given a pass.
After years of languishing anonymously in the shadow of culinary giants Japan and Hong Kong, the world has gradually taken notice of Korean cuisine for more than its kimchi, bibimbap and Korean barbecue — dishes that have penetrated the food lexicons of major international cities.
For the first time in 2014, Michelin inspectors awarded a Korean restaurant in TriBeCa, Jungsik, two stars in the New York guide, drawing attention to the possibility that Korean cuisine can be elevated to fine dining fare.
Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, an offshoot of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, has also helped shine the spotlight on some of Seoul’s finest restaurants.
Within less than two years of opening, Mingles in Seoul was voted the Best Restaurant in Korea this year, and debuted as the Highest New Entry on the ranking, landing in 15th spot.
Chef Suk Hyun Lee is one of the many young, passionate chefs who can be credited with propelling the “neo-Korean” movement forward in Seoul, thanks to stints abroad in the kitchens of Restaurante Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian, and Nobu in Miami and the Bahamas.
At Mingles, a seasonal menu plays with ‘jang’ and ‘cho’ — Korean fermented sauce and vinegar — and divides dishes into sections like grains, vegetables and fish.
Traditional Korean dishes are given unexpected Western touches such as foie gras and truffle, surprising local palates and reinventing old classics.
“For Korean customers, I wanted to provide a fun experience. For foreigners, I wanted to provide a special meal that they can only have here. I wanted them to discover newness in familiarity. And because of that, I put more emphasis on hansik (Korean cuisine),” Lee said in an interview with Time Out magazine.
Other Seoul restaurants to land on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list include Jungsik, (22) and La Yeon (50).
The overall rise of Korean cuisine can also be credited in part to the popularity of some of America’s hottest young Korean-American chefs, including David Chang and Roy Choi.
Triple Michelin-starred chef Eric Ripert is an outspoken fan of Korean temple cuisine, a vegetarian cuisine that purports to have medicinal and curative properties. Ripert is also Buddhist.
And another New York-based French chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, starred in a 2011 documentary travel series with his half-Korean wife Marja, exploring Korea’s culinary heritage.
The Michelin guide for Seoul is due to be released in the second half of this year.