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How Ryunique’s fascinating “hybrid” cuisine has made it one of Seoul’s best restaurants

Chef Ryu Tae Hwan shares the philosophy that saw the Gangnam outfit quickly break into the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants listing.

You’ve heard of armchair travellers. But how about an eating tour where you get to taste the best of what Korean farmers have to offer from all over the country, while still firmly wedged into your dining chair?

This is what you get at Ryunique in Seoul, where Ryu Tae Hwan stands out as the epitome of a cosmopolitan Asian chef – one who embraces international culinary influences but remains rooted to his origins and culture.

Not that he was always this way, as he readily admits. Schooled in Japanese and French cuisine, with a career that has seen him cook his way through Japan, Australia and England, he returned to Seoul to open Ryunique in 2011, ready to blaze a trail in the local dining scene.

“My earlier dishes focused a lot on technique,” says the soft-spoken 38-year-old. “I was like other young chefs who, when they start something new, want to show off everything they know.”

He also spent long hours travelling around the country looking for suitable producers, culminating in a cartoon map displayed on each table of his Gangnam restaurant. It features a rough outline of the country and cute sketches of animals and fish and where they come from: black chicken from Cheonan; pork from Yesan; strawberries from Nonsan, and so on. The more his suppliers grew, the simpler his cuisine became as it became more important for him to preserve the integrity of his produce.

“I’m not the only chef in Seoul who sources all ingredients locally,” he says. “But my strength is in interpreting the ingredients and coming up with the best way of presenting them.”

Like his restaurant name – a mash up of his name Ryu and the word ‘unique”, the result is a well thought out, refreshing cuisine that stands out even against fine dining stalwarts such as Jungsik.

An amuse bouche of “dragonfly” highlights his artistic flair, with gossamer wings made out of translucent dried kimchi leaves, a body of chestnut purée and potato stick, and a little head of chilli paste. It sums up his style, which reflects “a sense of humour, modern technique and umami.”

Another eye-catching snack is “fossilised” fish made with wafer thin slices of sweet fish from a farm near Bonghwa County – a shattering-crisp cracker displayed like a natural history museum exhibit, which you quickly devour with a mayo dip.

But what impresses is the ingenuity and balance of a lovely, chewy blini made from local buckwheat flour, topped with onion cream, boiled egg whites and eel bits, and decorated with a quail egg marinated in pickled beetroot juice and sprinkled with beetroot powder.

The chef is especially proud of his hanyakwoo – a step up from regular Hanwoo in that “hanyak” refers to the medicinal herbs including Angelica root or danggui, which are mixed into the cattle feed. The cows come from Bonghwa, which is famous for such herbs, and hanyakwoo is a registered trademark. The beef is served three ways – chewy dried meat slices, grilled steak and cottony soft, marbled shabu shabu lightly cooked by a drizzle of hot broth.

He also sources pork from Yesan, where pigs are fed on local apples, resulting in sweet, clean meat that’s topped with a pyramid of gently pickled cabbage that’s torched on top for colour.

It’s hard to believe Ryunique hasn’t cracked the Michelin Guide yet but from just this first impression, it’s one more discovery that’s convinced us there’s more to Korean food than meets the eye.

Ryunique, 520-1 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul. Tel: +82-2-546-9279

This story was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: Ryunique