Wednesday, March 01, 2006

how to survive on one meal a day

In a recent email, Sperwer wondered whether I was becoming The Monster That Ate Kangnam. Twice in as many days, I've been down to the Kangnam part of Seoul for dinner with friends of mine. Yesterday (Tuesday), I had dinner at Puccini with Charles of Liminality. This evening (Wednesday), I sat down with my long-time buddy Tom at Carne Station. In both cases, dinner was the only meal I ate all day. In both cases, one meal a day was all I ended up needing.

What follows is a description of both culinary experiences-- part travelogue, part restaurant review.


Puccini, located close to Kangnam Station, but away from the main street, offers upscale Italian food for people weary of the Korean (per)version of that other garlic-loving peninsula's cuisine. About the only negative aspect of the Puccini's experience was the price, but that wasn't really a negative: I got what I paid for, and I would gladly recommend this resto to anyone in Seoul who is jonesing for honest-to-God Italian.

Charles, who knows far more about traditional Italian dining than I do, suggested we order the Italian way: antipasti, then First Plates (prima piatti) and Second Plates (segundo piatti). Dessert was something we would decide on the fly, depending on how stuffed we were.

The servers brought us bread with dipping sauce. Charles informed me that the sauce was a standard combination of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Our appetizer was caprese, a small stack of circular slices of mozzarella alternating with slices of succulent tomato. The dish came garnished with various salad leaves. Charles wrote me in an email:

One thing you might want to mention about the salad vegetables (for both this and the appetizer) is that they included rucola, an Italian green that is a popular salad ingredient in Italy. Our bakkat saram loves the stuff.

One thing I've never been good at is identifying plants. I'm trying to recall which leaves were the rucola. Perhaps Charles can point out where they are in the photographs of our segundo piatti.

Charles had clam pasta as his "first plate." My first plate was a fantastic fettuccine in cream sauce, topped with smoked salmon. The dish didn't look all that special when it appeared (it's hard to make noodles and cream sauce look exciting), but the smell-- ah, the smell was the first thing to hit me when the steaming plate arrived. Magnificent.

Puccini is not like Maggiano's in the States: it has a sober sense of scale. At Maggiano's (one of the better Italian chain restos), they try to kill you by serving you plate after plate of far, far too much food. Puccini portions are more reasonable-- Charles described them as being somewhere between Korean and American notions of portion size. In fact, one major difference between Puccini and Maggiano's is that, at Puccini, they have a better sense of pasta-to-sauce proportion. At Maggiano's (as my mother has occasionally complained), they tend to overload you on pasta, which is a disservice to any well-made sauce. No such problem at Puccini. The fettuccine, when it arrived, was just the right size.

The salmon blended right in with the fettuccine: it was a simple, harmonious dish. Too bad you weren't there, Dear Reader. No, strike that: had you been there, we would have had to fight over the dish, and I would have been forced to disembowel you with my teeth. Kevins, while normally docile creatures, turn vicious when they perceive a threat to their food.

The meal proceeded at a leisurely pace. Charles and I ended up spending a good three hours at the resto. When the second plate arrived, the first plate was a pleasant memory. Charles was kind enough to take pics of the second plate. You saw one such pic above, but here's a closer look at our Frittura mista all'Italiana:

The above was essentially fried shrimp and calamari, but breaded and fried so delicately that the initial taste was almost shockingly good. I couldn't help making an unfair comparison: while I've come to enjoy the "popcorn shrimp" appetizer at the local Outback Steakhouse, that appetizer, which features batter-fried shrimp, is nothing compared to the meal you see pictured above.

A word of advice: when you go to Puccini, make sure you're hungry. What a waste it would be to arrive there still belching up vapors from your previous meal. I was happy not to have eaten anything all day: the experience was, as a result, most worthwhile.

Dessert was an exquisite tiramisu. On this art form, Charles writes:

I'm kicking myself now for not getting a shot of the tiramisu. But yeah, it's really good there. I've had a lot of tiramisu in my day, and the Puccini tiramisu is one of the best I've had, if not the best. A good way to judge a tiramisu is by its structural integrity: the best tiramisu is very delicate and will collapse quite easily. Sturdy tiramisu means that the cream is too stiff and/or they didn't soak the lady fingers long enough in the coffee syrup.

Most of the tiramisus I've eaten have been as Charles describes above: sturdy. The Puccini version is easily up there among the best I've ever eaten.

The cost of all the above (no wine or other frills) was about W50,000 per person. In my opinion, it was worth every penny, and I'd gladly go back again. Puccini gets my heartfelt recommendation. Try it out. Impress your woman. Or man. Or Siamese twin.


With my buddy Tom, I hit Carne Station this evening. It's also in Kangnam, sitting almost directly under the Bennigan's located a few minutes' walk from Kangnam Station's Exit 5. I don't know how I missed this place, but it also gets my enthusiastic recommendation.

The ambience at Carne Station is downscale: you pay about W20,000* for an all-you-can-eat, meat-and-fixins buffet-- drinks and soft-serv ice cream included. Your table is Korean-style: there's a huge skillet in the middle for cooking the raw, still-quivering flesh you pluck from the buffet. Servers come by periodically to change skillets when they've become too carbonized.

I basically went nuts. Unlike Tom, who religiously avoids fruits and vegetables (yet seems to suffer no ill effects), I loaded up on salad ingredients and got several plates of meat as well. Neither of us made the traditional Korean-style ssam, where you create a taco-like concoction by placing meat, vegetables, rice, and sauces into a lettuce (or other type of) leaf. We simply cooked the meat and dipped it in the available sauces. The whole thing was quite primal. Tom slapped a large piece of marinated beef on the hot grill and stared, fascinated, as the muscle tissue began to contract from the heat.

You're given a two-hour time limit, which is more than fair: I'd wager that most of you skinny wusses would be done in well before the first allotted hour was up. Tom (who, by the way, is not fat) and I took the entire two hours, veteran carnivores who knew how to pace ourselves. Along the way, I gobbled corn salad, fruit salad, peach halves, pasta salad, and a small plate of spaghetti with basic bolognese sauce.

The restaurant was well-lit; the atmosphere was relaxed; white folks were in evidence at other tables. TVs hung from the ceiling so people could watch the soccer match between Korea and Angola. Not a bad place to kick back. It's a different kind of relaxation when compared with how Puccini relaxes one; Carne Station has more of a football-and-beer feel to it: it's okay to shout at the TV when someone scores a goal, or to declare to your dinner partner that "I'll be back; I need to piss like a fuckin' race horse!" Puccini's ambience is more muted, sedate, and dignified, but not in the pretentious sense: you might not feel comfortable shouting obscenities there, but when the Italian manager (whom Charles knows) comes to your table wearing jeans and offering brisk handshakes, you know you're... well, home.

It's been a great break thus far, going out with friends. On Thursday, I'm doing lunch at the Itaewon Suji's with Sperwer-- the place features "comfort food," as Sperwer calls it. Veddy nice, veddy nice.

*You pay a wee bit more if you're planning to drink.



Maven said...

Rucola? Is that the same thing as arugula/arugala? That is my fave salad green. Nice and peppery. Good bite to it.

My mouth is watering looking at that calimari:)

Anonymous said...

Yup, rucola (one "c"--my bad) is the Italian name for arugula or rocket. It's a bit difficult to pick out in the photos above, but a Google image search should bring up plenty of pics.

An elaboration on the tiramisu (as I now realize that my explanation was not as detailed as it could have been): the creamy part of the cake is a mascarpone cheese mixture that is given its structure by whipped egg whites (and sometimes whipped heavy cream). The meringue is not cooked, though, and only makes up a relatively small percentage of the mixture. So at room temperature the cake will start to collapse, especially once you start eating it. If you come across a sturdy tiramisu, it means that either the cheese to egg/cream ratio is off or they put something else in the mixture (like gelatin, for example--yes, I've seen it happen) to make it hold its shape.

It was indeed a fabulous dinner. We'll definitely have to do it again sometime (preferrably when I have more money to burn).