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Navigate flavors of the Mediterranean in Seoul

By Kim Hae-yeon

Published : Nov. 18, 2023 - 16:01

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Eggplant lasagna, a signature dish at Kantina in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul (Kantina) Eggplant lasagna, a signature dish at Kantina in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul (Kantina)

In the vibrant streets of Seoul where culinary diversity flourishes, authentic Mediterranean establishments remain a rarity.

Located in the residential neighborhood of Ichon-dong, just a ten-minute walk from the National Museum of Korea, Kantina is an inviting restaurant specializing in Mediterranean cuisine.

Marked by its distinctive blue sign and interior, the establishment reflects the city's gradually increasing fondness for Mediterranean flavors, since its opening in 2021.

Kantina has some 30 dishes on the menu, including appetizers, flatbreads, pasta and rice dishes, as well as lasagna and several main dishes. Lee Kyu-na, the 34-year-old owner-chef of Kantina, meticulously curated each menu item, drawing inspiration from her travels across Greece, Spain, Italy and Turkey.

The interior of Kantina in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul (Kantina) The interior of Kantina in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul (Kantina)

"I was an exchange student in Istanbul during my university years, and that was my first encounter with Mediterranean cuisine, which I fell in love with instantly," Lee told The Korea Herald on Tuesday. "Mediterranean food's ability to bring out the original flavors of ingredients and offer a fresh, light, nutritious and delicious meal is what captivates me, and I hope people in Korea can enjoy them too," she said.

In Istanbul, Lee had the opportunity to explore and savor various cuisines. Upon returning to Korea, she found herself frequently preparing Mediterranean dishes for her family and close friends, driven by the fond memories of her days in Istanbul.

At Kantina, everything, from the flatbread dough to the sauces, and even the vin chaud to the Greek walnut dessert cakes, is prepared in-house, reflecting the restaurant's commitment to delivering fresh Mediterranean flavors.

For first-time diners, Lee recommends trying the hummus, the eggplant lasagna, or the Greek chicken.

"I love the nutty flavor of chickpeas, and hummus embodies that perfectly," she said, adding that it goes well with any dish.

The homemade-style eggplant lasagna, with its balanced flavors and comforting warmth, is different from the heavier and cheesier versions of lasagna commonly encountered.

The Greek chicken, marinated with a range of herbs and spices, offers a delightful combination of Mediterranean flavors, providing an experience that deepens with each sip of wine.

Hummus at Kantina (Kantina) Hummus at Kantina (Kantina)
Kantina's Greek chicken, with a choice of bread or fries on the side (Kantina) Kantina's Greek chicken, with a choice of bread or fries on the side (Kantina)

Kantina emphasizes the quality of its ingredients, sourcing them from European food product importers and rigorously testing each one to ensure a high quality.

The restaurant's wine selection, featuring choices from France, Chile, Spain and Turkey, is thoughtfully curated to complement its dishes. On the menu, Kantina provides detailed tasting notes and recommended food pairings written by Lee.

"I attend many wine tastings to find the right wines that enhance the taste of our dishes without overpowering them," she explained. "The selected wines don't just supplement; they elevate the dining experience at Kantina." Those who are not into wine but still want to try something can ask for recommendations.

Homemade sangria served at Kantina (Kantina) Homemade sangria served at Kantina (Kantina)
Greek walnut cake at Kantina (Kantina) Greek walnut cake at Kantina (Kantina)

Lee advises first-time patrons to discard the assumption that flavorful dishes must be salty or spicy.

"Many Korean customers appreciate the homely, well-balanced style of our dishes. Unlike Korean cuisine, which can be overwhelming with various spices and fermented sauces, Mediterranean dishes are simple, relying on fresh tomatoes, olive oil, cheese and bread. Overall, I hope the dining experience can be a relaxing time with loved ones, as if they were traveling the Mediterranean."

Kantina is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday, with a break time from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Dishes are priced between 13,000 won ($9.95) and 33,000 won.