The hold of celebrity chefs over Seoul’s dining scene remains as strong as ever, proving that the era of such culinary stars is far from over.
With chefs the stars of their own culinary space, dinner as theater has become a part of the dining out experience, with open kitchens serving as a stage for diners to witness chefs in motion.
Exquis -- a fine dining spot that opened three months ago in Sinsa-dong, Seoul -- takes the concept a step further by seating diners at a counter located above an open kitchen.
The effect is that of being seated at an arena, where one can watch executive chef Kwon Ji-hoon and his team plate each dish before it is served.
Kwon is more than up to the task of turning out vibrant, mouthwatering dishes under such intense scrutiny.
With 15 years of experience in French cuisine under his belt, Kwon and his team plate with immaculate precision, arranging each morsel with frightening exactness, using gloved hands and pincers as well as whatever other tools are necessary to create perfect dishes.
When each dish arrives, it arrives Instagram-ready, a marriage of color and depth and spacing.
This level of artistry is not surprising given that Kwon spent four years working at the former two Michelin star, Paris-based restaurant Senderens.
“I was very curious,” Kwon, 38, explaining why he traveled to France.
Experience working under such a formidable culinary giant as Alain Senderens and also of dining locally on French turf translates into a prix fixe parade of dishes that are aesthetically pleasing, complex but not so avant-garde as to alienate the diner.
That ability to fuse the familiar with the new shines through in dishes like Exquis’ appetizer of shrimp croustillant.
Crisp batter-fried, nut-encrusted shrimp are served with colorful circles of pickled root vegetables and a small glass of creamy, piquant foam sauce.
The marriage of fried shrimp with creamy sauce is not unfamiliar, a combination that brings to mind dishes like the popular Chinese shrimp with mayo sauce.
However, at Exquis, that familiar marriage yields a textural wow, the shattering crunch of fried batter crafted from brick pastry dough playing the lead in a dish in which extremes fuse into a harmonious whole. There is the richness of the fried shrimp and creamy sauce, the grease-biting heat of chilies in the sauce and of the vinegar in the pickled vegetables.
Of the extreme play of textures present in Exquis’ dishes -- from fried shrimp to melt-in-your-mouth beef, Kwon explained, “I want the textures to be clear-cut.”
Clear-cut is the word that comes to mind when served Exquis’ suckling pig, an arrangement of tender morsels of pork sporting candy-like crust that is sweet and rich and as crisp as glass.
“We sous-vide the pork first and then pan-sear it,” said Kwon, who added that the meat is coated in a honey-based sauce to help create that sweet, glossy crust.
Kwon’s culinary direction extends into desserts including his fresh compilation of strawberries with fromage blanc ice cream and basil.
“In France, I noticed many people eating strawberry coulis with fromage blanc,” said Kwon revealing the inspiration for his dessert.
Instead of coulis, fresh strawberries are served in a clear sauce of strawberries, lemon zest and basil, and topped with tapioca in coconut milk and fromage blanc ice cream. Fresh leaves of basil add a fragrant edge to the light and tangy dessert.
“Exquis means delicate, detailed and delicious,” said Kwon explaining the meaning behind the restaurant’s name. It is a definition that suits his fare.
B1, 648-14 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Open noon to 2 p.m., 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Prix fixe lunch costs 45,000 won, prix fixe dinner costs 110,000 won
By Jean Oh (email@example.com)