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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Res2go (Seoul)

Hungry for tasty meat, tired of high end restaurants and ready for good junk, but not in your usual fast food joint? (hang on a sec, I'm drooling right now, just thinking about Burger King's garlic burger - there) How about fusion Japan-Korean-Californian at Res2go?

As the name hints, you can pick up your dose at Res2go, but the place is also very comfortable, particularly at their Itaewon branch, a perfect spot for a power brunch, with its large windows facing West (Noksapyeongdae-ro and Yongsan Army Base). The decor? Hypey / happy design, just retro enough: half sixties for the colors, half nineties for the typo (you know, the cute web sites which made you feel like clicking on every icon?). Pure marketing, of course, but much more comfortable and less aggressive than - say - Golden Arches & Co.

Teriyaki, yakisoba, great LA Galbi, all kinds of meats (beef, pork, chicken, combos, salads), in Californian portions. Taste-and-price-wise, a smarter choice than your usual chain of family restaurant.

Res2go Itaewon / 레스투고 (fusion Japan-Korean-Californian)
Itaewon branch: 559 Itaewon-2-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel: +82.2.749.9297
Apgujeong branch: 636-9 Shinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel: +82.2.6080.7543

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Photo: Res2go

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bien Etre (Seoul)

A priori:
- my idea of "bien-etre" ('well being' for us froggies) is certainly not the Dosandae-ro / Yeongdongdae-ro intersection, a pack of tangled highways where Yeongdong Bridge and Olympicdae-ro also meet.
- and when I think "top restaurant", the first image summoned into mind is not one single, tiny room with only 2 basic tables of four, the restrooms in the next building, at the feet of tall appartment blocks next to the above mentioned noodle mess*.

But a posteriori: Bien-Etre fully deserves its name, and it's much more than just a top restaurant.

To start with, I don't mind sharing a tiny room with a Cordon Bleu chef when he's cooking. PARK Min-jae worked with Pierre Gagnaire and ran Le Carre in Apgujeong-dong. Here, the Master is not in some distant kitchen, ruling over an army of assistants: he's preparing every single amuse bouche for you, as if if were for a close relative, and you can experience the finest meal with the full show on the plate (and the palate), but sans the boring decorum that usually comes with it. The ultimate table d'hote for a happy few, a festival from the entrees to the souffle**. Every bite makes some Bien to your Etre.

In Paris, the 'neo-bistro' trend also puts food first under the motto small is beautiful, but this is probably the World's Plus Petit Grand Restaurant.

Needless to say, you have to book in advance for this not so hidden gem (Bien-Etre's reputation already crossed many borders).

Bien Etre / 비앙 에트르 (restaurant)
130 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel: +82.2.543.3288

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* I know it sounds a little bit too Dickensian for such an expensive neighborhood (Cheongdam-dong), but come on, there are nicer surroundings in Seoul. And I'm the biased, "Gangbuk" kind of Seoulite (make that "Gangcheon", for 'north of Seoul's original waterway, Cheonggyecheon').
** a la vanille, le souffle. Perfect taste, temperature, and texture. I loved it. But if you want me to melt down, cook me a good souffle au fromage.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

One year after the tsunami that triggered the Fukushima Daichi incident, and 16 month after the G20 Summit*, Korea will host the World's top heads of state and nuclear security experts at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit**.

The event reaches beyond Non Proliferation Treaty signees but of course, neither North Korea nor Iran will attend (they already 'missed' the first edition - 2010 Washington Nuclear Security Summit). And of course, both will nonetheless manage to appear center stage.

At the top of the agenda (beyond Kim The Third and Ahmadinejad, that is):
- cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism
- protection of nuclear materials and related facilities
- prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials

Threats are not limited to ill prepared facilities or 'Rogue States': nuclear materials are more than ever a prime target for terrorist groups, and even friendly countries collaborating with the IAEA are at risk (typically, Washington trusts Islamabad up to a certain point only). The presence of the INTERPOL tells a lot about the will to cooperate at a more operational level.

I bet they won't even allow one poktanju*** to detonate within a 50-mile radius during the conference.

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*see "G20 Seoul Summit 2010"
**2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Symposium (March 23)
2012 Seoul Nuclear Industry Summit (March 23-24)
***Korea's most proliferating WMDs: the infamous A and H bombs made with soju and beer or whisky

Monday, February 13, 2012

Guro-gu boom, a bang for the (renmin)buck

I recently mentioned Seoul's most expensive neighborhoods for opening shop (see "Six lanes of traffic"), but a recent article in Chosun Ilbo delivered a full picture at the district level for premium spaces, exposing a spectacular boom for Guro-gu and Geumcheon-gu (respectively +39.9% and +36.1% between 2011 and 2010 in the value per square pyeong)*. All districts posted gains (up to 12-15% for Gangbuk-gu, Jung-gu, Gangseo-gu, and Gwanak-gu), except Gangnam-gu (-1.8%), Dobong-gu (-2.2%), and Yongsan-gu (-11.2%).

As a result, the central and traditional office space strongholds Jung-gu and Jongno-gu moved to the top of the rankings, and Guro-gu jumped from the lower tier to third place. Gangnam-gu, the 2010 leader, was downgraded to 4th, and Seocho-gu (an anemic +0.2%) from 3rd to a distant 5th, threatened by Mapo-gu (+4.2%), and even Yeongdeungpo-gu (+8.1%).

The relative pause for the southern stars (Gangnam-Seocho) doesn't come as a surprise, following the bubble years. Yongsan's bad year is probably a side-effect of massive redevelopments: they're making room for the IDB and various new towns, particularly around Seoul Station (I'm really afraid the atmosphere around Malli-dong market** will not be the same after the evacuation).

Southwest Seoul is catching up nicely: Gangseo-gu certainly benefits from the new Line 9, and Geumcheon-gu from the Gasan Digital Complex, but as they develop their own infrastructures, Gyeonggi-do neighbors (e.g. Gimpo or Gwangmyeong) also contribute. On the other hand, they bring fresh competition: see how the new Lotte Mall Gimpo Airport is taking aim at such hotspots as Yeongdeungpo's Seoul Times Square.

So last year, it was Guro's time to shine. A nice reward for a district that discovers glamour after the transformation of Guro Industrial Complex into Guro Digital Complex (from factories to venture / IT startups), or the inauguration of D-Cube City***. Note that Garibong-dong, Seoul's center for Chinese communities, is naturally attracting Chinese money. Of course, along came the Chinese triads, and the fight for premium commercial space is raging at that level too, more than often involving North Korean / ethnic Chinese gangs. But that's an epiphenomenon, and don't picture yourself in the South Central L.A. of yore: you're in Seoul, and in Guro-gu, a vibrant district for families. Just enjoy the city!

Overall, another year of inflation: prime commercial estate surpasses KRW 100 M per pyeong* in 16 of the 25 districts, compared to 9 in 2010. But as expected, the gap between the 'richest' and the 'poorest' is decreasing: from 63% in 2010 (Gangnam-gu 126.6 M, Gangbuk-gu 77.590 M) to 58% in 2011 (Jung-gu 134.92 M, Dobong-gu 85.44 M).

Seoul Village 2012
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*see "구로구 점포 권리금, 강남구 앞질렀다는데" (20120208 Chosun Ilbo). NB: 1 pyeong = 3.3 square meter.
** see "
Sungwoo Barbershop, Malli-dong Market"
*** about the latter, see "
D-Cube City and Korean Food Street (Byeokgyesu)"

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Neighborhood watch

Did you know that Yeonhui-dong area was seriously considered by Jeoson dynasty founders for their new capital (nowadays Seoul)? They eventually chose Bugaksan instead of Ansan because the place could be defended more easily, but Sinchon owes its name (new village) to that period, and King Sejong loved the place so much he built a palace for his father. Unfortunately, nothing remains of it and no one knows where Yeonhuigung was precisely erected. I guess somewhere along what is now Yeonhui-ro, not far from Yeonhuimat-gil, where a streamlet used to flow a few decades ago: according to feng shui, you had to have a 'ying' mountain behind you, and a 'yang' river below.

Anyway. It was then said that some day, kings would live here. And it turns out that two former presidents have a residence in Yeonhui-dong (Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo), and that former president Kim Dae-jung used to live just a few blocks away, in Donggyo-dong (and to shop at
Saruga, then the country's first supermarket). Note that Chun and Roh share ROK army backgrounds, and that land was granted to high ranking officers in the area following the Korean War: fierce combats raged in Yeonhui-dong around Hill 104, a strategic position, and a gateway to the Capital.

These days, Roh Tae-woo is very ill and Chun Doo-hwan seldom leaves home. As is the custom for former presidents, their residences are heavily guarded, and you can tell when a big fish is visiting by the insigna of the people waiting outside. Guards have to live in the vicinity, and a whistleblower recently revealed that the crew in charge of protecting Chun used, free of charge, a building within the Seoul Art Space Yeonhui* domain (next to his residence), and that the contract would expire on April 30th.

Last year, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon received a welcomed last minute boost for his election when a scandal broke out regarding the future personal protection of President Lee Myung-bak (suspicious land acquisitions for his retirement place and security facilities). In this even bigger election year, chances are he won't renew a contract that ensures for free, in the most charming public residence for writers, the protection of a former dictator.

Seoul Village 2012
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*see "Seoul Art Space Yeonhui"

UPDATE 20120208

As expected, Seoul Metropolitan Government won't renew the contract: "Chun's security detail to be booted off city land" (in today's Korea JoongAng Daily)

SeMA to block blockbusters

Seoul's blockbuster exhibition frenzy* may cool down a few notches. As we saw over the past few years, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Klimt, Rodin, Warhol, or Chagall came to town in unprecedented waves, while at the other end of the spectrum, younger generations got a pretty nice share of spotlight**. Unsurprisingly, confirmed Korean artists didn't receive the attention they deserved, so the new head of the Seoul Museum of Art wants to switch to a more balanced diet*** (NB: I promise, that's it for my f***g ***s today).

Even if it doesn’t look as impressive as the massive Seoul Art Center complex in Seocho-gu, SeMA does have a lot of space to fill, but it's split between different venues. Until now, the editorial line looked (a little bit) like this:

  • for power hitters: the main building in Jung-gu (former Supreme Court HQ in Seosomun). Bonus: print and TV ads, plus bright flag advertising banners all along Deoksugung-gil.
  • for minor league players: a small yet cute Nam Seoul annex in Gwanak-gu (the former Belgian Embassy in Namhyeon-dong). Bonus: subliminal pop-ups on SeMA’s website.
  • for little league toddlers: an architectural mess at the entrance of Gyeonghuigung (picture the roof of Munich Olympiastadion next to a royal palace – Prada Transformer did a much better job for the contrast). Bonus: the place seems to open only between 2.37 and 3.45 AM on certain holidays every leap year (of course I’m exaggerating: I remember among other successes a recent Seoul Photo Festival)
  • Note that SeMA also acts as an incubator for promising artists in Mapo-gu (Nanji Art Space in Sangam-dong, in the Seoul Art Space spirit)

Significantly, these days, SeMA stars Yann Arthus Bertrand in yet another photo expo milking his Earth from Above series and Home movie ("It's my home"). Seosomun building also hosts a less advertized show about "Korean Abstract Painting - 10 Perspectives", and chances are I won't go all the way down South to see the most original program ("Where's my friend's home?" almost seems tailored for the Seoul Museum of History).

Typically, the new boss, who only took over a few days ago, wants to make more room for Korean artists in their 40s and 50s, and why not, to push beyond walls, towards the charming walkway of Deoksugung-gil (the museum gardens were already used as a stage in recent expos, and a couple of years ago, a trio of bronze sculptures featured at
KIAF 2008 has been permanently installed across the entrance, by the palace walls).

It would take a Paik Nam-june to bring the same crowds as the blockbusters of the Noughties, but I don’t think that’s the aim of the game anymore. It’s not about flash events featuring big brands, but about brand building for art itself: now people must come even when there isn't a big name. Museum executives used to outsource the organization to a well connected producer: they will now have to do their jobs, and to contribute to a vast pedagogy effort that must also involve the media and school systems.

If SeMA already contributed a lot to the democratization of modern and contemporary art in Seoul, it cannot fulfill all its missions and fill all its venues with blockbusters occulting the rest (which also includes such recurrent events as the Media Art Biennale or the Print Biennal). So it can leave classic blockbusters to say the SAC, and devote more energy to more ambitious programs and to permanent collections... even if, of course, it cannot build as extensive a collection as the MOCA's (SeMA does propose a decent exhibition of its New acquisitions every year, though).

Speaking of the National Museum Of Contemporary Art: here too, a new chief has just been named this very week. Among the big challenges: preparing the inauguration of the "UUL National Art Museum" next year (
reminder: the former Defense Security Command in Sogyeok-dong, a future landmark).

This period of fine tuning in normal considering the boom of the past years, as Seoul caught up with fellow world capitals in cultural infrastructures. As a younger player, it can learn from past mistakes. For instance, as a Parisian, it's interesting to see how long it took for the Musee d'Art Moderne to adapt to the new 'competitive environment' following the success of Centre George Pompidou.

To be continued.

Seoul Village 2012
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*"Gustav Klimt at Seoul Arts Center - Pompidou at SeMA"

** see for instance the
ASYAAF series

SeMA to shift away from 'blockbuster' exhibitions" (Korea JoongAng Daily 20120206)

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Following the tradition, we had an early lunch today: daeboreum (대보름) or the 'Great Full Moon' celebrates the first full moon of the new year - according to the lunar calendar -, and eating early brings good luck for the crops.

We had the classic set: miyeokguk (미역국 - seaweed soup), ogokbap (오곡밥 - rice cooked with grains and beans, plus chestnut for the occasion), and a selection of home-dried herbs and leaves, including my beloved* siraegi (시래기 - someday, if I manage to learn Korean correctly, I pledge to write a poem about it). Emptying the winter reserves of dried leaves is also part of the tradition, to make room for fresh productions.

But if most of the snow melted, we're not done with winter yet.

And make no mistake: of course, our reserves are also full of junk food.

Seoul Village 2012
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*see "Baek nyeon chueotang (Seoul)"

Friday, February 3, 2012

Saenuri, a brand "new" wor(l)d

In Korea, the life expectancy of a political party rarely surpasses that of a David Beckham hairdo, and key leaders can change franchises with the swiftness of free agents.

But over the past 15 years, we kind of got used to a classic face off between conservatives (Grand National Party / GNP / 한나라당 / Hannara Dang) and liberals (Democratic Party (DP / 민주당 Minju Dang).

Actually, while the GNP brand survived major losses as well as Lee Myung-bak's 2007 triumph, the DP kept changing names: the Millenium Democratic Party, the Uri Party, the United New Democratic Party, again the Democratic Party, and now, following a recent merger with the Citizens Unity Party, the Democratic United Party (DUP / 민주통합당 / Minju Tonghap Dang).

As a matter of fact, the Korean 'left' has always been a jigsaw puzzle, and only Kim Dae-jung managed to federate all forces behind his own historical figure. Roh Moo-hyun did succeed him as President because of his own qualities, but he also benefited from his former rival's aura, and the conservative candidate, Lee Hoi-chang, was as un-likeable as one could be in those pre-Facebook days. Now Han Myeong-sook claims more than ever the leadership of the opposition: she served Roh as the country's first female PM, was cleared of corruption charges (charges that 'proved' that she was considered a menace for the governing party), and was elected the head of the 'new' united party. Yet she clearly lacks the quiet charisma of Kim and Roh.

And the GNP champion, Park Geun-hye, doesn't fare much better: regardless of her genes (to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the armistice, I don't think a Park dynasty down South would be the best answer to the Kim dynasty up North), Park Chung-hee's daughter is more associated with conservatism and tactics than reform and strategy. Typically, she seized the nth political scandal of the decade to pose as a 'reformer', simply because convicted felons were replaced by the next breed, and because, at long last, the party was rebranded.

Exit the Grand National Party, enter the New World Party (새누리당 / Saenuri Dang). If they forgot to lock the domain name (at least, the 'democratic' remained active after the merger), they kept the tradition of a lyrical, zweideutig brand: the Han of Hannara could also mean One or Korean, and Saenuri almost sounds like a joyful bird.

Anyway, for 2012, both sides want to sell a major league clash between two new and improved parties, and as a bonus between two women. Change! Broken glass ceilings! The rivals even met a couple of weeks ago for a photo op.

Of course, that only stresses their fear of outsider Ahn Cheol-soo. The netco founder hasn't officially declared himself a candidate yet, but he's been pervasively consulting overseas to raise his credentials (much advertized meeting with Bill Gates).

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