Review: The Shilla's La Yeon (신라호텔 라연) *Michelin 3 Star

The unveiling of the first-ever Michelin Guide for Seoul last year was the big news of the local gastronomy scene but it certainly wasn't without some controversy and talk. Of the 24 Seoul restaurants that received stars, only two received the most-coveted three star rating one of which was the La Yeon at the Shilla Seoul hotel.

Now, respective opinions aside, the restaurants overall at the Shilla have long been known for their quality including their superb buffet which I have written fondly about.

La Yeon itself is located on the 23rd floor which houses the hotel's Chinese and Korean restaurants (La Yeon being the latter).

The restaurant has a larger dining section that seats about 40 and one larger private room.

As a perk of being located just by Namsan, The Shilla offers great views of the N Seoul Tower from the restaurant.

Nibbles provided before the meal. Lighty, seaweedy crackers and dried jujubes.

The menu is always seasonal and you can choose between the basic meal or with the add-on main course. The basic meal is already quite pricey but the add-on will really put a spike on the final bill (as will any alcohol orders). But after all, it IS, the Shilla.

This was the menu on my visit with the add-ons.

For the meal we enjoyed some premium bokbunja wine from the famed Seonwoonsan (Mt. Seonwoon) region which has traditionally been known for the berries that go into this wine.

A mellow but sweet wine, it's akin to a nice port wine and it was well received by our group which included many foreigners. Our French guest, an avid wine fan, was particularly impressed and repeatedly shared how this would do so well in his home country.

Because of the sweeter flavors, it really does a good job masking the alcohol which really starts to sneakily show itself after a few glasses. :)

It was late fall when I visited and so our menu reflected that in dishes like the starting course- the chestnut puree.

To the naturally sweet chestnut in their prime, even more roasted and shaved chestnut bits come atop it really makes this a chestnut lover's dreams come true. It certainly evokes some nice autumn/winter memories.

That being said, it was nicely executed if unmemorable on all counts including visually. After all, there's only so much on the palate canvas you can go with chestnut, chestnut, and more chestnut...

A far more interesting and complex dish was the seared Korean beef rolls with vegetables.

The nicely marbled hanwoo (Korean beef) comes nearly translucently thin with slivers of radish, perilla and some pine nuts while a simple soy sauce vinaigrette is served on the side. The sear on the beef is very minimal to the point that without the mm-thin pepper crust bordering each beef slice you'd hardly know it was seared at all.

Rolling is DIY. Take some of the vegetable slivers, pine nut, and roll it up and take a dip in the vinaigrette. In contrast to the chestnut puree dish, this is a nice and intriguing combination of textures and flavors while the richness of the fatty beef and strokes of piquant from the sauce particularly enjoyable. I would surmise that the beef is kept deliberately thin to give the diner an exercise on the balance of the entire dish but meat loving Koreans might find their prized Korean beef too thin to really find satiation.

The rice porridge course comes with porridge infused with seafood and a piece of delicately cooked (steamed) codfish. Water kimchi and dried squid shavings are provided on the side. 

The server recommended sprinkling some of the dried shavings atop the porridge for added flavor.

A nice enough porridge but if yet another remarkable dish. Even with the added umami of the dried shavings, it was forgettable while the delicate cod, while tender and succulent, was literally a tablespoon size.

For my main add-on, I chose the abalone hot pot rice (essentially a bibimbap) and the chargrilled sirloin. Both these came on a single course along with sides and a dwenjang based soup.

Sides included pickled vegetables, seasoned namul, and nakji jeotgal (fermented young squid). The latter is actually more a condiment for the rice pot which I'll explain in a bit.

The pickled vegetables (jangachi) are light in flavor considering it's a jangachi, which is known for their strong flavors, but just with enough sharp, sweet, and salty flavors to complement the hot pot rice which is kept minimally seasoned for a reason (more on that in a bit).

The dwenjang soup uses quite a clean cut dwenjang that's more Japanese miso-like than rustic, hearty country dwenjang. The baek kimchi follows suit in its light yet refreshing taste and look.

The hot rice pot itself comes with a layer of white rice and seasoned vegetables with an abalone atop.

Don't expect any gochujang or other strong seasoning. Instead, for those who want, the lightly seasoned nakji jeotgal is recommended to be spooned atop the rice dish for added seasoning.

At this point, one familiar with Korean cuisine notices the style and flavors of La Yeon's cooking is very much reflective of the traditional Seoul and Gyeonggido style. Minimal seasoning, more salt and soy sauce-based than overpowering stronger seasoning like gochujang (red pepper paste).

In recent decades Korean cuisine has taken on stronger seasoning and bolder flavors. Crimson hues are perhaps the representative colors of a traditional Korean meal but La Yeon's dishes definitely are not in this category. As such, the dishes will be a disappointment for those who are accustomed to the Korean flavors of today.

Even the char grilled sirloin is quite light in flavor though delicious. But it's hard to mess up grilled, seasoned meat.

Dessert included a shaved ice dish that's their take on the beloved patbingsu. The ice is shaved into ribbons that instantly melts on the tongue which sits atop creamy hongsam (red ginseng) ice cream and pat (sweet red bean). Very traditional flavors and ingredients and I was surprised to see how well hongsam pairs with pat. 

This was also served with goguma ddeok (sweet potato rice cake) and soojeonggwa (a traditional sweet drink with cinnamon and other ingredients).

Though it looked crumbly, the rice cake held well together and with a natural delicate sweetness. The sujeonggwa... tasted like sujeonggwa. I'm not sure how much room there is to make this drink differently but it was pleasant enough.

Final Thoughts:
In the end, it was a perfectly fine meal with everyone full and content. But the question that remained on my mind was whether this was a Michelin star-worthy one, and more importantly, a three star worthy restaurant.

Certainly prime ingredients were used for the seasonal menu while staying true to its Korean roots. At same time, La Yeon wasn't anything on the innovative front for its cuisine or even plating which, of course, isn't necessarily the basis for Michelin's three star rating but it seems intriguing that such a purely Korean restaurant clearly based on the Seoul, Joseon Dynasty-era royal court/upper class kind of cuisine over many other peers offering similar or an even more innovative dining experience in the capital is interesting. After all, this top accolade seems to suggest that La Yeon represents the pinnacle of this sort of cuisine.

I'm still conflicted in many ways. I tend to err that though a star would might be merited, a three star rating seems unusual. I'm curious on the basis of how Michelin determined that La Yeon deserves a higher rating over such dazzling and memorable restaurants such as Mingles, Poom, or even Balwoo Gongyang.

I will say that my visit to La Yeon was interesting timing-wise as it was just a week or two before the official unveiling of the first Michelin starred restaurants in Seoul. Even then though, the hotel had the general knowledge it would make the triple star status- as relayed to me by an employee- and the official unveiling of the first Michelin Korea list was even held at the Shilla if I'm not mistaken.

All this to say is that my opinion on La Yeon as a luxury Korean restaurant is that it's perfectly fine. Many will find it bland in comparison to the bolder, spicier, and stronger flavors of contemporary Korean cuisine but as a reflection of a somewhat offshoot of the royal court cuisine of the past which largely depended on the best seasonal ingredients from around the Korean peninsula and their cooking process, it's a good reflector and one you won't easily in such a fancy setting.

As to the question of its Michelin rating, a Michelin star I don't find out of the question but a three star rating does leave me conflicted. To be rated as an exceptional restaurant that's highlighted as a must visit for such a conventional, traditional Korean restaurant over the myriad of top Korean restaurants in Seoul, that I can't say for sure.

서울 중구 동호로 249
249, Dongho-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea

As soon as you exit Dongguk University Station's exit 5 turn left and follow the directions to the Shilla Hotel's main building. The walk should only take 5 minutes or so and La Yeon is on the 23rd floor.



Valet parking available at the hotel

Various premium Korean alcohol and wine available including pairing courses. 

Reservations strongly recommended.

If you feel inclined to try La Yeon but with a simpler menu (compared to dinner) with simpler prices, opt for the lunch courses which runs around 100K to 170K compared to dinner which runs 180K and above.