Thursday, March 24, 2016

a little visit to Number Four

As I'd written previously, my boss has a lawyer friend whose son heads an "Italian" (the boss's descriptor) restaurant in the Hongdae area called Number Four. The lawyer's daughter is an accomplished designer (interior and graphic design) who helped create the look of Number Four; she did a fantastic job. The lawyer had invited my boss—and, by extension, us underlings—to a special dinner at Number Four.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start the story earlier in the day this past Tuesday. Since the boss had offered to drive us to the resto, we hung around until 6PM, then piled into the boss's car, flipped on the GPS, and headed into the schizoid mecha-horror that is Seoul's rush-hour traffic. It took us a little over an hour to cross town from our southeastern region to the Hongdae area, roughly in northwestern Seoul, but not too far from the city's geographical center of Namsan.

It was dark by the time we arrived. At first, we didn't see the restaurant from the street: the restaurant's sign facing the main street is rather small and understated; as with Manimal, the sign also sits very high in the air, floating among the invisible angels that guard this city of heedless motorists. We found parking pretty much we way one would in crowded parts of Washington, DC: by driving around a block until an empty space finally appeared. We ended up parking across the street and walking over.

The main entrance to the restaurant is up some stairs and on the building's second floor. We went up that way; the boss told the confused-looking young lady who greeted us that we had a reservation. Once he explained the situation further, her eyes finally lit up in comprehension, and she told us we'd come to the wrong floor: we needed to go up to the third floor. I took a shot of the restaurant's second-floor interior before we stepped back outside, went down to street level, and took a different set of stairs at the side of the building to reach the third floor (no interior stairs, guys? really?—and if you're wheelchair-bound, you're fucked).

Once at the third floor, the boss's lawyer friend and his wife greeted us, and we all sat down at one of the longer tables. The seating was plush, and the ambiance of the third floor was more muted and serious-looking than the cheerful, almost diner-like atmosphere of the second floor. Conversation was awkward at first because most of us were strangers to each other, and also because the boss's lawyer friend, and the lawyer-friend's wife, couldn't speak English. They were relieved to find out that I could speak some Korean, but for the most part, attention was focused on my boss, who speaks Korean as fluently as my buddy Charles does, and who has a large, effusive, conversation-dominating personality. My coworker, normally a quiet guy at the best of times, was especially quiet that evening.

The lawyer's son came over, distributed menus to us, and explained that we could order what we wanted, but that the staff would be bringing over extra food for us to taste—a win-win, as far as I was concerned. An entry for lobster gnocchi caught my eye, so I ordered that. My coworker got himself an eggplant rigatoni, and when the lawyer's daughter finally arrived to sit with us, she ordered a beet risotto. My boss ordered some sort of large salad.

When we were asked what drinks we would like to order, I said I wanted a Coke, to which the lawyer's son impulsively replied, "Diet?"—on the assholish, unspoken assumption that a fat person would of course need to drink Diet Coke. "Yeah, I think you need a Diet Coke," said the lawyer to me with a smile. Like father, like son, apparently. This exchange occurred in Korean, so my coworker caught none of this. I just gave the lawyer a stony smile and ordered my fucking regular Coke. Let's face it: if you're ordering gnocchi, you're ordering a pile of carbs. What benefit do you get from Diet Coke at that point?

A Mediterranean-themed appetizer came out first: a basket of warm pita bread, salade verte, and various things to stuff inside the pita like an olive/anchovy tapenade and quenelle-shaped footballs of ricotta. Tasty and healthy. The pitas were interesting because they smelled exactly like English muffins, but the taste and texture were completely pita-ish.

The dishes we'd ordered appeared within a few minutes, along with some extras: there was a saumon en croûte on a bed of sauerkraut, which I guessed was an Alsatian dish (saumon en croûte is French while sauerkraut is German; that sort of Franco-Germanic combination happens a lot in Alsace). There was also a pair of pulled-pork sliders with cheese on toasted buns, and a French-looking chicken dish on whipped potatoes described as "balsamic chicken." I ended up not being able to try any of the chicken, unfortunately, but I could imagine the taste, and I already knew it wouldn't be anywhere near as good as Joe McPherson's flock of lovely dead birds.

I ended up pleasantly filled if not exactly stuffed, and very glad that I hadn't had to pay for any of this: the bill would have made a nun shit right there in the church.

Here's an exterior shot. Again, my phone can't handle night shots, so my apologies for the glare and the blur.

Here's a shot of the second floor, where we did not eat. Bright and happy.

A shot of the more serious-looking third floor, with another look at the restaurant's sign.

I didn't take any pics of the appetizer, but below is a shot of my lobster gnocchi, which was quite good, if not astoundingly good. The gnocchi themselves were much smaller than I had hoped for (this is Korea, where everything is smaller), but their texture was absolutely perfect: gnocchi ought to offer some resistance when you chew on them, and these did. The lobster was also front and center, taste-wise, and the diced squash was cooked to perfection: not too mushy, not too hard. The chef obviously knew what he was doing. My only complaint was that all the elements in the dish had been diced or otherwise prepped so that every piece of solid food was the same size. This created a somewhat boring textural uniformity that made it harder to pick out which pieces were lobster and which were gnocchi. A more robust presentation would have given us lobster in large, torn-up chunks along with bigger, heftier pieces of gnocchi.

Anyway, here's my dish:

Here's my coworker's eggplant rigatoni, from which my boss stole several pieces of pasta, perhaps regretting his having ordered a damn salad. I tried a single piece and liked the dish, but I think my boss liked it a lot more: he kept swooping back to it like a crow that can't resist stealing twinkling bits from a pile of shiny objects.

I liked the earthy presentation, here: huge pieces of eggplant, huge quenelles of ricotta—no subtlety at all. I wish the chef had taken the same approach with my gnocchi.

Next up: those pulled-pork sliders. The cheese is covering them so thoroughly, in the photo below, that you can't really see the meat. In the end, I liked my own pulled pork better, but this wasn't bad at all. It was modestly sauced, almost to the point of being under-sauced, but I can see why the chef might have made that decision: he may have decided to let the pork sing on its own as much as possible, with the sauce providing only supporting notes. If you think about it, Korean-style meat-eating goes along similar lines: you don't drown your meat in sauce; instead, you dip it in sauce, coating the meat with just enough flavor to provide an accent instead of allowing the sauce to insist upon itself.

Sliders, with a side of cold mashed potatoes:

This next beautiful shot is of the balsamic chicken that I never got to try. I did get to eat some of the whipped potato, and that was quite good.

There was a long pause, after the main meal was cleared away, before dessert came out. Dessert was a hilariously thin tarte made of maybe two or three sheets of phyllo dough and covered with papery slices of sugar-cinnamon apple. I had never seen a tarte so thin before, so I had to stifle my laughter. That said, the dough was buttery as hell, which brought a surprising amount of flavor to the dessert. I could have rolled the entire thing up and eaten twenty of those bad boys, but I had to content myself with a tiny two-by-four-inch piece and a modest slice of vanilla ice cream.

La tarte aux pommes:

Ah—I see that I've forgotten to talk about the beet risotto, which was the most striking dish of the evening: it was colorful and tasty, with an almost al dente texture for the rice and no trace of the beet's normally obnoxious undertones. I could have scarfed down several plates of that dish as well, and I'm kicking myself for not having taken a picture of it. I was all ready to declare the beet risotto the most creative, outside-of-the-box dish I had seen at a Korean-style Western restaurant, but when I went home and looked up "beet risotto" on Google, I was disappointed to learn that it's actually a rather common dish, after all (see these photos). Still, that knowledge detracted nothing from the experience of eating the risotto itself, and if I ever go back to Number Four, the risotto will be something I order again for sure.

All in all, the meal was competently executed and very enjoyable. If there were any problems or discomforts, they had nothing to do with the food itself and more to do with the fact that I was sitting awkwardly with strangers who obviously occupied an income bracket far, far above my own. It's one reason why I normally don't like dining with super-rich folks: it's impossible to relate to them. Put me in steerage with the hoi polloi and give me my goddamn comfort food. That's what this dinner was: the polar opposite of comfort food. It was, as I said, competently executed, but it was also dainty and a bit pretentious. I do give the chef full marks for creating authentic cuisine: there wasn't a false culinary note to be found anywhere, and my inner critic was likely frustrated by that state of affairs. My other complaints—again, having nothing to do with the food—were that the ambient music was completely unsuited to the dignified atmosphere (they were playing bass-pounding rap, for God's sakes! I wanted to go hit a nightclub), and the menu was thematically all over the place. Far from being an "Italian" restaurant as my boss had described it, the place was a European-themed restaurant, as the owner's business card said. Problem is, the pulled-pork sliders weren't European at all: they were American. It was hard to know what the restaurant wanted to be when it grew up: French? Italian? Something vaguely Mediterranean?

The lawyer and his son proudly noted that Number Four is popular among dating couples, and many customers become regulars. The place has been open for only a year and a half; I wish the owner good fortune (even if his Diet Coke remark was assholish), and might find myself back that way again, but only if I'm feeling very spendy and am not too hungry: this wasn't comfort food, so portion sizes were fairly small. My boss asked why the place was named Number Four; I don't remember the lawyer's son's explanation, but it had something to do with a cultural turning-turtle of the popular notion that 4 is a bad-luck number (the Chinese character for "4" rhymes with the character for "death," thus creating a phonetic association in China, Japan, and Korea).

The evening's experience dovetailed with my other experiences of food in the Hongdae neighborhood. Hongdae is a popular night spot and has something of a growing reputation as a foodie destination, but my own experience has been that the portions in Hongdae restaurants are consistently too small, and the food is consistently overpriced. Part of the latter problem is inevitable, as foreign food is overpriced in general in Korea,* but it is possible to find cheaper options of equal quality: the best example I can think of is the difference between the Hongdae-based Indo-Nepali restaurant Shanti and the Dongdaemun-based Indo-Nepali restaurant Everest. Everest wins on every count: the portions are larger, the food is cheaper, and the quality is as good as or better than the quality of the food at Shanti.** Number Four falls into that same trap, but I have to give it credit for providing food that is recognizably European.

Would I recommend Number Four? To the extent that it provides authentically Western food and an ambiance fueled by great interior design, yes. To the extent that the portions are small, twee, a mite pretentious, and expensive, no. I suspect that your dinner date would prefer a more relaxed atmosphere where you can dig into a steamy, fragrant pile of comfort food. But if you're rich and in love, and you buy into the "Hongdae is a foodie destination" hype, then why the hell not visit Number Four?

*Korean food in the States is ridiculously overpriced, so this problem works both ways.

**Shanti is Sanskrit for "peace," which apparently doesn't apply to wallet rape.


Charles said...

Ah, casual assholery at its finest.

I love me some gnocchi, but have yet to master the technique required to make them. I've done my research and understand the principle, but my gnocchi always come out terribly disappointing. You don't happen to make gnocchi, do you?

Kevin Kim said...

I've never tried, mainly because I'm afraid to. Gnocchi has a reputation (undeserved?) as a dish that's very easy to flub, but I suspect it's just a matter of discipline, focus, and practice. I'd like to make gnocchi at some point, as well as spaetzle. Oh, and risotto, which I've never seriously attempted before, mainly because I lack the patience for all that damn stirring.

But the weather is now warming up, so all the heavy winter dishes that I love must give way to lighter, leafier fare. Next fall or winter, perhaps—and if I remember—I'll embark on a gnocchi/spaetzle adventure.

Bratfink said...

This reminds me of a visit I once had to a Benihana type restaurant. They took a beautiful lobster tail and minced it! I was horrified! The tastes were wonderful, but the texture seemed like baby food to me. The bar however made up for the inadequacies of the food.

I love gnocchi!