Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Korean Fine Dining and Wine at Onsemiro - so gooooooood!!

Korean food is notoriously and desperately hard to pair with wine. There are so many intense flavors and aggressive scents in your average Korean meal, it's not as straightforward to getting a decent match as compared to pairing wine in a Western context. Equally, there is the eastern style of "wandering chopsticks" and textural sequencing of dishes as opposed to the "light to heavy" approach in the Old World.

Notwithstanding, IWFS KL Food Subcomm Chairman David had been glowing in his praise about the Korean food experience he had enjoyed at the Malaysian International Gourmet Fair the previous September (which he had repeated with success at the restaurant on subsequent occasions) and persuaded us to give it a try. 

So it was that following a food tasting the Committee opted to hold the February 2013 members gathering at the Onsemiro Korean restaurant, located on the second floor of the refurbished Intermark Mall. Onsemiro in the Korean language means ‘nature itself’ or ‘as it is’. This sentiment is said to run very much in line with Korean views on food and culture generally: to keep things simple and natural, letting the herbs and spices do the talking. Onsemiro prides itself on impeccable, unobtrusive service and giving the best Korean dining experience through the most perfect combination of dishes. 

The restaurant itself has a number of enclaves that allow for private dining yet with an open area that nicely seated about forty people. Warm wood dominates with clean glass and steel rails giving that sense of efficiency with comfort. Clear lighting rather than subdued, it felt clean and comfortable and friendly. 

The Executive Chef is Chef Yang Tae Yong. Born in South Korea and with over thirty years of experience in and around distinguished establishments in his home country, Chef Yang draws almost all of his inspiration from nature. Chef's philosophy on food and Korean cuisine is that it should taste as close to nature as possible, letting the natural textures and tastes shine through. Chef believes that these principles mean that Korean cuisine can be as effective as any medicine, becoming food for both the belly and for the soul.

Well, and maybe. Still looked like a devil to try and match wines with it. Web research had suggested:
  • avoid bold, heavy and tannic wines
  • avoid overly sweet whites
  • remove kimchi and many wine issues get resolved
  • aim to pair with the main dishes rather than the banchan sides
The default options seemed to suggest dry, light Riesling or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc for Korean meals heavier on the spice than usual. Nothing that was too sweet, fruity, or complex. The other possibility was beer or soju, more probably to put out the flames rather than complement the food. However, other suggestions included Fizz and/or Chenin Blanc for appetizers, and Rose and Grenache for marinaded beef mains.  We brought a selection of various blends and varietals to the tasting and found some interesting and pleasant pairings.  Onsemiro manager Yuni kindly supplied some Korean liquors to sample with the dishes and they were clear winners. We were on our way to a grand fine dining Korean experience!

Not that the members seemed too enthusiastic at the start. Right up until the extended deadline, Secretary Jeremy was looking to generate support. As it was, 37 members and guests eventually signed up for the function. 

Crunchy Appetisers
On arrival, everyone got greeted with what has become a standard and expected glass of fizz. The Tenimenti Conti Nero Prosecco di Prosecco Veneto IGT NV has been a stalwart for our functions and again it proved its worth as a great appetizer for the night. 

Prosecco used to be a grape varietal until it became a DOCG region and the authorities changed the grape name to Giera to avoid confusion between varietal and region. Now, anything professing to be Prosecco must have been produced in the Prosecco DOC region or the two Prosecco DOCGs. The grape has high acidity and a fairly neutral palate, white peaches, with an occasional soapy note on the nose, producing a light-bodied low alcohol wine. Light, fresh, very neutral. nice, crisp, easy to drink, good acids, nice crown. Some body and a nice crisp flavor, neither sweet nor bone-dry. Lovely color, refreshing bubbles.. Vanilla and yeasty. Lemon rind and slight green apple. It was cold, clean and refreshing, with nice brilliance in the glass. 

We had also decided to pair it with the food appetisers. At the committee tasting, someone brought Bollinger which did excellent work in cleansing the palate from the fresh and crispy vegetables and various seafood combos. So it made sense to follow through the fizz into the first dish on the table. The appetisers were light and delightful combinations of spiced and firmly textured mouthfuls of seafood and vegetables, crisp and firm and yet with a softness and fullness that satisfied both sensually and substantially. Visually pleasant and colorful. The Prosecco livened up the crab spring roll and toned down the mustard dressing, The vinegar did zap the bubbles a bit and thinned out the wine, but not so much that either disappeared. Outside of this, a good pairing and a good start. 

The Samgye Juk
Next came the starter Samgye Juk, which was billed as "Energizing chicken porridge infused with goodness of dates, chestnut, gingko and hearty portion of renowned Korean Ginseng served with cooling Baek (white) Kimchi," it was essentially chicken soup with ginseng. Not as hearty as the stuff one takes for the soul or when feeling a bit under the weather, it did a most pleasant job on the palate. The chicken was lean and shredded and firm in texture, whilst the soup was thankfully undersalted allowing the ginseng to come through nicely. A very delicate taste with the dates and gingko lending necessary firmness. 

We had tried a chilled Rose, a crisp white blend (Nederburg Lyric) and the Robertson Chenin Blanc 2010 at the first tasting. The Chenin shone as a better partner than the fighting Rose and the apple sharp and racey Lyric. The Robertson Winery was established in 1941 on the site of a charming missionary church on the outskirts of Robertson town, named in recognition of a Scottish minister.  The church is now used for winemaking and cellaring operations, so one might say that the wine is somewhat sanctified. The vines have an excellent prospect of the sea whose cooling sea breeze allows for the ripening period to be extended and thus building up concentrated flavours in the grapes. The website notes talk about its "appealing light straw colour. Light with lovely ripe, attractive rounded fruit. Fresh floral nose and an exciting acid balance." 

IFWS KL Ladies - glamour and style!
The Chenin did indeed prove an understated star. Soft fruits on the nose, lean and textured in the mouth and with a hint of spice, it melted the chicken and undercut the ginseng which allowed a lovely floral note in the wine's finish to come through. It quckly became a favourite of the table, with most of the gathered bibbers calling for refills. 

It was at this point that the first of the Korean liquors, the Baekseju, was presented. Baekseju means "one hundred years wine" that is made from fermented Korean glutinous rice and flavoured with eleven herbs and ginseng which help to promote longevity, hence the name. It is brewed using traditional methods and has a mellow flavour to compete with spicy Korean dishes. Herbs include licorice, omija, gugjia (Chinese wolfberry), ginger, and cinnamon. Baekseju has been the official toasting drink in a number of high profile Global meetings, including the 2009 World Environmental Forum and the 2008 OECD Ministerial Meeting. 

This was explained to the members and guests who quickly toasted each other to live for one hundred years. One wag suggested a second toast so that everyone might live for TWO hundred years, though I understand some husbands refused, saying one century of marriage was more than enough. Tasting of plum and calamansari and spice but with the texture and poke of sake, it was given a definite fine oloroso quality by the soup. Highly enjoyable.

There was a slight break at this point when IWFS KL President Rajan introduced wine subcomm member Brian to give a little detail on the wines that had gone before and those that were yet to be, though some simply took the opportunity to go to the bathroom. Sometimes, you just can't fight nature.

The Bibimbap
On to the mains, the Kotsai Gui and Yangnum Galbi. The menu described the Kotsal Gui as "Rare beef part, the chuck flap tail, with fine marbling patterns which creates the distinctive taste of finest meat" whilst the Yangnyum Galbi is marinated beef short ribs. Both would be grilled over Korean Oakwood charcoal on a ceramic brick wood burner brought to the table and served with vegetables and spring onion salad on side, with a Chef’s special dipping sauce made from a concoction of 50 type ingredients. The Korean Oakwood is said to bring out the juiciest, tender and best natural tasting beef.

There would also be Yukhoe Bibimbap (or julienned raw beef) with combination of mushrooms and vegetables medley, flavoured by gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) and sesame oil on top of rice served with egg yolk and bugeot dubu tang (dried Pollack and tofu soup). This would be served with Tangpyeongchae (or Mung bean starch jelly mixed with julienned vegetables and seasoned to taste), Pogi Kimchi (Whole cabbage Kimchi) and Geotjeori (Napa cabbage dressed with spicy Kimchi sauce).

To pair, we had selected two wines from the Guigal range - the Cotes du Rhone 2009 and the Chateauneuf du Pape 2006. Our reasoning was that both paired well with the sweetly marinaded beef at the tasting and the opportunity to let members taste both side by side should prove an educational exercise in comparing the two styles. Other suggestions included Rose, Chianti or Zinfandel, but the Guigal pairing proved irresistable.  

Both looked impressive on paper. The Cotes du Rhone 2009 (WS 88, WA 89, Jancis Robinson 16/20) was a Silver in the 2012 Decanter and a Bronze in the 2012 International Wine Challenge. It is also the house drinkingred of Clive Coates MW, as noted in his contribution to the recently published monograph "An Appreciation of the Age of Wine" authored by current IWFS Honorary President Sid Cross.  Robert Parker notes the "deep ruby/purple-colored, concentrated, fleshy, medium to full-bodied, supple offering reveals plenty of pepper, kirsch and blackcurrant fruit intermixed with a notion of flowers…is meant to be consumed during its first 2-3 years of life although I have tasted 10-year-old bottles that are still holding together. Drink: 2011 - 2014." 

Robert Parker calls The Chateauneuf du Pape 2006 a 'winner" whilst WA scores it 91. " This is an underrated vintage, sandwiched between two greater years, 2005 and 2007, but it is certainly a top vintage that is probably being discounted by retailers. This wine has a dark plum/ruby/purple-tinged color and a big, sweet kiss of creme de cassis, kirsch, cedar, spice, and balsam wood. With outstanding intensity, full-bodied power, and a long, rich, silky finish, it should drink well for up to a decade."

Excellent Beef on the tabletop Barbecue stove
And so they indeed proved, with the CdR edging the CdP in terms of matching the deliicious barbecued meats. The sweet marinade brought the CdR fruit well forward with enough pepper and tannins to tame the proteins and slight fat lines in the meat. The barbecue style meant that the meat was sizzled and seared in its own juices and eaten wonderfully hot off the plate. The meat was first class, tender yet firm with the woody smoke indeed poking through the clay ceramic hotplate and toasting the meat with a hint of oak burn. The one criticism heard was with regard to amount - some felt that there could have been a little more meat on the plate for the sake of feeling fed. Well, and maybe. The argument goes that Fine Dining requires there be enough food to taste but not so much as to dull the senses - if you want quantity, then go find a burger joint. There certainly seemed enough meat for my appetite to be happy, though all plates were totally cleared of the beef. Perhaps an extra chunk or two might have been politic, though it would have been a cardinal sin for meat of such quality to have been wasted. 

Notwithstanding the excellence of the CdR matching the meat, the CdP was class. Sleek, structured, beautifully balanced yet wonderfully full in the mouth with an endless finish. A magnificent wine. 

Old and new IFWS friends
At this point, someone insisted on the Gangnam dance. This is the current craze of the dancehalls of the world made famous by Korean native Psy. So the thinking went that since we were all at a restaurant serving Korean food and since we might not all be gathered there again then the occasion demanded for it to be danced by the members. It would seem the wine had worked its magic on sequential reasoning and, being in a similar frame of mind, it was difficult to argue such a proposition. The restaurant manager Yuni was able to work some magic with an Ipod and a portable player and so it was that the Gangnam got danced at the Onsemiro by sporting members and guests of the IWFS Kuala Lumpur. Yes. It was interesting to see normally reserved and somewhat solemn and sombre members roaring and cheering on the dancers, such is the effect this dance seems to have on people. Nice to see them let their hair down and have fun - Opah Gangnam IWFS Style!

Again, as always seems to be the case with IWFS dinners, dessert is a distant memory with little in the way of legible notes. It was paired with the second Korean wine, the Suljungmae, or Seol Joong Mae, made from Korean Green apricots (plums) and tasting of rich plum and herbs. This seems to be a brand name from the Korean Mae Sil Ju, meaning plum wine. We had the Seoljungmae (Gold) which apparently contains real gold flecks and which is believed to rejuvenate skin and helps detoxify the body. Using the highest-quality hand picked fruits, Seoljungmae Gold has a mild flavor and tastes just like green plums and herbs. Rich textured and honeyed in the mouth yet without that unctuous feel often associated with traditional dessert wnes, it made for a relaxing finish to the night. 

Members also got a free taste of a third Korean wine since the wrong one had been opened and the manager decided to let it go. This was a rich red stickily sweet raspberry reminiscent of the sticky sugary strawberry goo they used to pour over ice cream cornets at the seaside. It is apparently good for maintaining stamina in the men. Okay. I managed to swap mine for the remnants of someone's CdP. 

Yuni and Kitchen crew
The serving staff were pleasant, friendly and accomodating, and everyone coming out to help with barbecuing the meat and serving at the tables was a lovely personal touch. Yuni was a capable and delightful Maitre D'  and kept the evening and the food running smoothly and competently and with good humour. Chef and crew came out for a brief hurrah which became the signal for many to make their ways home. 

Overall consensus was that the One Hundred Year was the evening favourite - not as sweet as the Suljungmae - and the Chenin went well with the Soup.  The CdP was stunning though the CdR was best with the barbecued and sweet marinaded meat. The matches were generally good, and outside of the odd grumble of some people feeling a bit Olivered (Oliver Twist? Asking for more? Geddit?) we can chalk the evening a success and thoroughly enjoyable. Must have been good - we gave our friend the Geezer a lift back home and he was clearly well squiffy. Don't often see him like that, so call that a sign of a good evening. Kanpei!!

Photos by kind courtesy of Onsemiro, Jan Shaw and Brian McIntyre

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