Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Mingles (Seoul, SOUTH KOREA) ★★★★★

Surprises from the Asia's Best 50 Restaurants Award just keep coming every year. Just when everyone was fully expecting Jungsik to be crowned Korea's top restaurant for the third straight year, they completely shocked us with the selection of Mingles.

But for foodies who are familiar with Seoul, this should come with no surprise at all. Mingles has been one of the rising stars in Seoul's dining scene the last couple of years and is considered one of the most difficult table to get in the city. A bit of background information here first. Chef-owner Mingoo Kang honed his craft from working with Chef Martin Berasategui in Spain during the early stages of his career before moving to the United States where he worked his way from junior sous chef (NOBU Miami) to Executive chef de cuisine (NOBU ATLANTIS) in just 3 years.

Chef Kang moved back to Seoul to open Mingles in 2014. Since its opening, Mingles has been one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in town and today, it's leading a new wave of modern Korean restaurants that is rapidly changing the landscape of contemporary Korean cuisine with a strong focus on Korean ingredients. I am seriously counting on Chef Kang and his crew to pepper me with all kinds of wonderful dishes before I head back to Hong Kong this afternoon.

The 6-seater bar table is the perfect way to go for a solo diner.

But I love the dining room even more with the perfect amount of natural lights.

Look at these trophies, newly arrived from the "Asia Best 50 Restaurants" Award in Bangkok early this year.

The lunch menu features 2 set menus and a number of signature dishes such as seafood cappellini and foie gras torchon which can be ordered on the side (more on that later).

I've been very impressed with the way these high-end Korean fusion restaurants (Jungsik and Soigné to name a couple) dazzle me with their amuse bouche. Will Mingles deliver too?

Our first nibble was a halibut roll with apple straws in the middle. Looks like the piece of raw halibut has been marinated with a lemon dressing first before they added a bit of Korean fermented bean paste on top. Pretty clean and refreshing start.

That was accompanied by a seaweed cracker that was nicely decorated with toppings like salmon roes, tapioca, abalone sauce, mango and avocado purée. They finished things off by sprinkling white truffle powder atop. That was beautiful.

Next up, we have another beautifully presented nibble in the form of an egg nog with cauliflower cappuccino and Korean mushrooms.

Very nice.

Now that my taste buds have been warmed up a bit, it's time to take on our first starter. It was a refreshing dish of scallop salad with slices of scallops sitting neatly on a bed of spring vegetables and herbs. A little too much acidity if you ask me but the result was not bad.

The salad was curiously served with a pair of truffle chips.

At this point in time, we had a break from the set menu and cutting in between was one of the signature dishes we ordered from the a la carte menu - foie gras torchon with white kimchi and Korean plum wine.

They have a very interesting dish here with each foie gras torchon marinated in Korean plum wine and then tightly wrapped with a sheet of black vinegar infused kimchi. Also throw in a Korean plum wine pairing for good measures.

I thought the foie gras was silky smooth and had a nice depth of flavors but the plum wine didn't seem to be doing much at all, which was slightly surprising.

We temporarily switched back to the set menu and enjoyed a cod fish fillet served in a Korean spicy red pepper bisque sauce. I really like the Korean twist here with the Korean spicy squid, potato purée and white kimchi doing a lot of good work and providing the cod fish a lovely spicy kick.

We were again going back and forth between the set and a la carte menu and this time around, we were set to take on another house specialty - squid-ink capellini pasta, with squid-ink and seaweed jang sauce, fresh sea urchin and seasonal seafood.

That was the plan until we were told that the quality of sea urchin wasn't up to par this afternoon so just lobster and onion in this one. I was obviously devastated with the trade-off (lobster for sea urchin) but at the end, more than happy with the results. The capellini was done perfectly with flavors from the squid-ink and seaweed combining wonderfully well together. Lobster meat and cherry tomatoes provided the finishing touch on this one.

While I was still enjoying the aftertaste from my cappellini, my main dish was readily sitting on deck. I've been pretty fond of Korean duck during my recent trips to Seoul so this was a no-brainer for me here - seared duck breast, with sweet and sour sauce and "seasonal Jang-a-jji".

That was so tender and succulent. Just perfect.

We've had quite a few charred Korean beef tenderloin on this trip but the results have been largely mixed. This version from Mingles was slightly above average with the truffled Jang sauce and seasonal vegetables complementing the marbled beef nicely. But personally, I would rather have my Grade 1++ tenderloin from Two Plus.

I was trying to figure out if this was just a pre-dessert. If it is, then they have just scored a few extra points right there. There's a lot of ingredients including coconut anglaise, black vinegar infused pineapple and celery, raspberry sorbet, spring herb ice, cocoa chip and crumbs trapped in this small glass container. Oh and a "broken" chocolate cigar too. If refreshing our senses was the objective of the dish, then they've totally achieved their goal!

Finally we were down to our final dish of the afternoon, which also happened to be Mingles' signature dessert. I love the way they presented this in a traditional earthenware jar which was commonly used to make kimchi.

Here we have a "Doen-Jang" creme brulee, served with 3 types of Jang (or sauce) - soy bean, fermented soy milk and chili powder and the whole thing, along with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, was showered with "Gan-Jang" pecan, "Gochu-Jang" black rice and a whisky foam giving it all kinds of interesting textures and flavors. Very very nice.

Petite four was a tiny glutinous rice cake with red bean paste and a glass of lemongrass or jasmine infused juice.

Other than one or two dishes that failed to swing for the fences, I thought everything was clicking for me this afternoon. The amuse bouche, sea urchin cappellini (correction: lobster cappellini), seared duck breast; I could go on and on. It was just a fantastic dining experience. Of course, I had to scramble to catch my 3 o'clock flight afterwards but even if I miss my flight, at least I was running around with a happy stomach.

A huge monkey is off my back now that I've scratched Mingles off my list.

Food Rating: 8/10
Price: ₩₩₩₩
Address: 1/F, Nonhyun-dong 94-9, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Closest Metro Station: Apgujeong Rodeo / Gangnam-gu
Tel: +82 2-515-7306
Website: www.restaurant-mingles.com
S. Pellegrino Asia's 50 Best Restaurants: 15th (2016)

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