So this is what Korean fine dining looks like...
If you've ever had a decent Korean meal at least once in your life, you should know how it's often served — unapologetically messy, delightfully hearty, and served by a cheerful Ahjumma. So what if it doesn't make the cut on your Instagram feed? It always hits the spot, which is why we go back again and again, for the sound of marinated meat hitting the hot grill or that flavour kick from biting into a piece of kimchi. There is beauty in instant gratification.
But like every insatiable want in life, there's always the other end of the spectrum where food pipe dreams exist — where prices tip the scales, wine pairings edge out bottles of soju, and Korean cuisine reinvents itself.
For Chef Jungsik (his name aptly means fine dining in Korean), who owns his eponymous Jungsik, a Michelin-star restaurant in Seoul, elevating Korean cuisine means stepping out of traditional boundaries while retaining the binding elements all at the same time. He started out working in the esteemed kitchens of Aquavit and Bouley in New York, as well as Michelin-starred establishments in Spain, before setting up his very own haven in Korea.
We were invited to taste Chef Jungsik's creations as part of the "Fine Dining Lovers Guest Chef Series" in Cassia at Capella — as we slowly savoured the varying flavours in his five-course dinner, we soon found out it was almost like discovering Korean food for the first time. It was neat, balanced in flavours, complete with a few unexpected surprises. Nothing was as it seemed, and even a side dish proved to be a piece of art. The meal started with an amuse bouche — a well-seasoned rice ball topped with sea urchin and dongchimi (Korean white kimchi), a delicious prelude of what was to come from this exquisite line-up.
Starters rolled out strong — the braised octopus was kept to a perfect crisp on the outside, while fork tender on the inside, and delectably paired with a generous portion of gochujang (Korean red chilli paste). We also got to try Chef Jungsik's version of gimbap (seaweed rice roll), which features crispy seaweed encircling a mix of bulgogi and truffle pâté, topped with a pickled sauce made from white kimchi and chives.
Chef Jungsik also made sure to dish out branzino, a seabass that's widely consumed in Korea. It was beautifully charcoal-grilled over a bed of kimchi and seaweed powder, and presented with a tiny bottle of aged sesame oil. We only wish you could have been there to take a whiff of this intoxicating end product. Following that, we sampled a dry-aged duck breast (previously stuffed with grass to bring out a glorious smokiness) that was brilliantly aromatic with an earthy fragrance. It was unlike anything we had ever tried.
No meal is complete without desserts, and in this case, we were served two desserts. The pre-dessert was a refreshing sujeonggwa (named after a Korean cinammon punch), a pear sorbet served with cinnamon jus, ginger panna cotta and date chips. It cleansed our palate for the main dessert, named Hot Corn — essentially corn ice-cream cleverly disguised in a corn shell, laid over a warm bed of caramelised pecan and charcoal corn, and sprinkled with a hint of cayenne pepper. No offence to the folks out there going nuts for bingsu, but there is certainly more to Korean desserts than a bowl of shaved ice.
The Jungsik experience is definitely one to remember, where Western techniques are brilliantly executed with an Eastern sensibility. It was almost like we attended a rich cultural lesson led by a hip lecturer well-versed in Internet buzzwords. This is how Korean cuisine can transpire into yet another league of its own.