That’s because, for me, dining isn’t just about eating. It’s about the telling of a story on a plate. It’s about the social interaction and shared experience that only the dinner table can elicit. It’s about reveling in an art practiced and perfected by a chef, and savoring ingredients provided by the earth.
Now, I have been fortunate enough to have quite a few memorable dining experiences throughout my life, from sharing a bowl of chanko with sumo wrestlers in Japan to tucking into tajine with Berber nomads in Morocco. But I can say with certainty that not a single meal can compare to the dinner I had at Ryunique last month.
Staying true to its name, the Sinsa-dong locale serves incredibly inventive dishes dreamed up by Chef Tae Hwan Ryu. Chef Ryu marries Korean ingredients with Japanese and Western culinary techniques gained from his past apprenticeships in the UK, Australia and Japan. His work is so admired that Ryunique was rated 27th in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and marked its name on the list of 100 Best Restaurants in the World by Diner’s Club Academy.
I was invited to sample Ryunique’s 23-course (!!!!) signature tasting menu recently and was, put simply, blown away. It would take a few blog posts to walk you through our almost-five-hour meal, so instead, here are the highlights.
Seconds after our cab pulled up to the restaurant, we were greeted at the door and walked inside the restaurant. Our reservation was at 6, so the place was still a bit quiet, but the atmosphere was nevertheless delightful.
The relaxed dining room features low lighting, fresh flowers and white tablecloths—a great setting for a romantic date. Or a girls’ night, it seemed, as female patrons made up the majority of the clientele on that particular evening.
A friendly server greeted us promptly to take our drink order and handed us the tasting menu, entitled “Chapter 1.”
Soon thereafter, he presented us with a plate of fava bean pods and gave us some background infomation on them. As we soon learned, this would be the first amuse bouche of the meal and amuse us it did. He informed us that two of the beans were in fact covered with chocolate and we were to find them. This entertaining little game hinted at the fun that would ensue throughout the evening.
The following amuses continued to delight, not only with their flavors but with their avant-garde presentation.
Among my favorites included the lion mane mushroom, which was served with a pipette of truffle aioli on a bed of roasting pine needles alongside a mushroom cookie dusted with shitake powder.
The roasted honey-glazed chestnuts from Jiri Mountain were also quite good, as I’m always a fan of smoky-sweet flavors.
But my favorite had to have been the Kimchi Dragonfly. The “insect,” which was perched delicately on a stone, looked exactly like the real thing with its dried kimchi wings and head made from a concoction of gochujang and pureed kimchi. Needless to say, this tasty little guy “flew away” pretty quickly.
The next courses began to come out one-by-one, and our eyes got bigger with each dish.
Although a bit more humble in its presentation, the “Yesan Inspiration” course was one of my favorites of the evening. The flavors of perfectly cooked apple-fed pork jowl were enhanced with shallots, apple vinegar and apple relish made of apples from Yesan County. The flavors were so nicely balanced; each little bite was an enjoyable taste of autumn.
As the meal progressed, it became more obvious that the running theme of the menu was nature, which we would later learn was inspired by the chef’s childhood. This was especially true for Chef Ryu’s signature dish: the quail.
A beautiful plate, which we were told was designed by a collaborating artist for this specific dish, bestowed a seared quail breast served with beetroot puree and half a pickled quail egg. The other part of the dish—a quail leg wrapped in bacon—was presented inside a smoke-filled bell jar which was opened after a rather dramatic countdown.
The aroma of burning hay—one of the main inspirations of the dish—quickly permeated our table, immediately rousing our taste buds. After finishing off the duck (dried and aged in-house for three weeks and served with orange puree and fresh horseradish), we were full and ready to head out.
That is, until “Chapter 2” of the tasting menu was placed on our table top. So much for the stereotype that haute cuisine won’t fill you up!
This “chapter” was indeed a sweet ending of all kinds of delightful desserts. Chef Ryu’s homemade cotton candy wrapped around panacotta and presented on a picture frame brought me right back to my childhood while the caramelized rice “Nooroonji” had me reminiscing about some of my favorite memories in Korea. The “Jewelry Box,” meanwhile, was a grand finale that has to be seen to be believed.
The Final Word
Our experience at Ryunique can be likened to a trip to the theme park—one of surprises, anticipation and good, old-fashioned fun.
Chef Ryu and his team have somehow created an experience that engages all the senses to replicate that same magic.
From the aroma of burning pine and the sight of a manufactured fog rising from rocks, to the sound of popping candy and the coolness of the frozen palate cleansers we had to defrost by hand, the tasting menu constantly surprised us. This was only enhanced by fun guessing games and uncommon interactions—like being able to choose our own steak knife.
And, also like at an amusement park, there were some moments of confusion. Like when the bowl of ingredients that were used to ferment the “John Dory” (a miss in my book) were simply left at our table “for watching only.”
The servers were polite and passionate and delivered each dish as if it were a well-choreographed dance. Their pacing was spot-on, with one small oops at the end of our meal when one of the servers mistakenly forgot to bring our tea.
At ₩230,000 ($220USD) per person (without drinks), the signature dinner at Ryunique is quite a splurge. (You can opt to visit during lunch to enjoy a smaller tasting menu at a lower price.) Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a completely differentiated and unforgettable dining experience, this is the place to treat yourself. You won’t find another place like it in Korea.
Address: 40 Gangnam-daero 162-gil, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Sunday Lunch: 12–3pm; Dinner 5:30–10:30pm
Website/Menu: Click Here
Disclaimer: The meal described above was provided by Ryunique for a discounted price in exchange for this blog post. The opinions are, however, my own.
Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.