April brought a lot of changes to my life. I finally switched jobs after spending the first six and a half years of my career at the law firm where I had started my career. Fortunately, I was able to take a bit of time off in between the jobs and decided to use that opportunity to visit Korea with my wife Jun to catch up with our families (both of our parents and two of our siblings still live in our mother country). It was quite a hectic schedule and we both got sick from an unusually cold weather for the spring, the so-called “Asian dust” from air pollution in Seoul (originating in part from China) that is especially bad during this time of the year, and really bad stomach viruses. I felt especially awful about my stomach virus for a couple of reasons. First, it was after having a dinner celebrating our first anniversary as a husband and a wife. Second, it was at one of the top restaurants in Seoul with two Michelin star cred. And lastly, other than a couple of dishes that Jun and I guessed might have contributed to my sickness (although we have no way to prove this, it could’ve been just because I was generally under the weather with the jet lag and the brutal schedule with families that I couldn’t take in all the food), Kwonsooksoo was otherwise a very good restaurant.
Kwonsooksoo literally means a “professional cook by the last name of Kwon”. The head chef at the kitchen, Kwon Woo Joong, has been well-known in the dining circle in Korea for his modern take on Korean cuisine with unexpected flavors and techniques. A “modern” Korean cuisine is often more difficult to pull off than one thinks because you need to be really on top of your game in handling various traditional ingredients and consistently executing well to understand how to create the subtle yet elegant flavor of dishes. And Chef Kwon’s dinner course, at approximately $140 per person, largely succeeded in that delicate balancing act. My favorite dish of the night came in the form of this dandelion noodle (with smoked sea bream sashimi on top) that you can mix up with various herbs and other vegetables on the side. The real star of the dish, however, lies in the perilla oil that gives the noodle a distinctly earthy yet refreshing flavor. I was very impressed with the way the kitchen put together this dish, and would gladly have this any time for lunch. Another winner was the steamed fish with red pepper powder sauce and vegetables. It at first looked like a rather pedestrian Western fish dish. The more I tasted the fish, however, it started to remind me of the Korean “maeuntang” (spicy fish stew) even though it was not really a soup. The spicy kick added to the gently steamed fish was really a thing of beauty.
Some dishes were slightly off my taste, and as I noted above, Jun seemed to think I might’ve got sick from one of these two. The sea eel, fried in seaweed, had a unique texture to it that was quite interesting, but the ghost crab sauce that accompanied the eel had a rather funky flavor to it. And I wish that the kitchen decided to use a meat other than venison to stuff the fried dumplings. The gamey feel of the meat didn’t quite work the way the kitchen probably had intended, and the unease from that feeling wasn’t quite dissipated even with the five years aged tea on the side, which was a shame because, to my surprise, I found myself not being able to finish the 40 day wet aged Korean beef striploin steak that was served as the final savory course, even though the meat was more or less perfectly cooked. The meat’s portion was quite generous as you can see in the photo, but I still couldn’t believe that my appetite disappeared after finishing only half of the meat, while Jun, who ordered the same meat dish, managed to eat the whole thing while constantly praising its immaculate texture. I felt slightly better when the dessert, using almost exclusively carrots from the Jeju Island in the southern region of Korea, gave some refreshing relief, but by the time we got back to our hotel room, I was in a terrible shape, constantly throwing up. I debated whether I should write up a review for Kwonsooksoo given these circumstances but ended up decided to do so since I was more convinced that my sickness was more than likely to be attributed to the crazy schedule and jet lag rather than to the food at the restaurant.
It is absolutely necessary to call or email in advance to secure a reservation at Kwonsooksoo, which asks for an advance deposit of approximately $100 to secure the reservation. There is also a drink pairing (we went with four glasses of wine and Korean liquor for around $75 per person). The wine selections were rather interesting (I didn’t expect we would be served an orange wine or a red natural wine as part of our pairings), but as I mentioned numerous times in my previous reviews, Jun and I tend to be traditionalists in our wine preferences. I gave a heads up to the restaurant that we were celebrating our anniversary, and they kindly put us in a quieter room and even sent us a cute plating when bringing out the petit fours. For the unexpectedly unpleasant aftermath of the dining experience, I stand by my conviction that Kwonsooksoo is a worth a visit if you are looking for how a Korean chef is pushing the boundaries to bring forward the taste of Korea in an inventive and thoughtful manner.
KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 6 Eonju-ro 170-gil (643-18, Shinsa-dong), Gangnam-gu, Seoul, Korea