Thursday, 20 June 2013

Passion 5 & L'atelier

Google Maps indicated a 25 minute walk between Sushi-ro and Passion 5 through what seemed to be a park, but 15 minutes into our journey I realized the patch of green on my map wasn't just any park, but Namsan

The route that I'd been given required us to walk through an expressway tunnel under the hill, a rather suicidal task. With no option of going around Namsan nor any idea how to go over it in any efficient manner, walking the rest of the way was out of the question. So, like any other sane tourist who's hopelessly lost and can't understand the language, we took a cab and pointed at the characters on the screen, hoping the driver would know where to go. 

After a bit of confusion and a lot of looks that plainly said "Gosh, I hope I'm going the right way.", the driver finally pulled up between the large red bird and the large black chandelier of Passion 5 to everyone's immense relief. 

Passion 5 and all the other related cafés and restaurants in the group are housed in a sleek, black building shaped like a horseshoe. Initially, M thought that the whole place basically sold the same things and we could go to anywhere and try the pastries and cakes the place is so famous for, but we were soon told that each level houses a slightly different outlet, all serving slightly different things. 

So, we did thorough reconnaissance of the whole building. The basement housed a really posh place doing more traditional high tea offerings, and felt like the perfect destination for well-heeled ladies of leisure to sit and chat. Since we didn't have the entire afternoon at our disposal (Still had to get to the art museum!), we were forced to tear ourselves away. 

On the ground floor, Passion 5 proper is divided into a number of sections, 1 being the Gelateria, 2 the Bakery, 3 the Patisserie and so on. There's a limited number of seats, all rather cramped given the large display shelves. It's really more a grab and go sort of place on the ground level rather than somewhere nice to sit down, and as we found out later, you can actually purchase a number of pastries and have them plated and served to you at L'atelier on the 2nd floor. 

Still, even if you're not eating there, you definitely need to feast your eyes at Passion 5. Just look at those cakes - notice the pigs wearing sunglasses near the bottom right corner? 

Some of the specials had extra displays. I imagine if Cinderella really did have a 'kill heel', the story might have been a tad more interesting. There's also the whole display of puddings, biscuits and a chocolatier packed into the space, and if you don't emerge feeling slightly giddy from all the colours then I salute you. 

We hitched a ride in the lift on the left hand side of the building, and it stopped us on the 3rd floor where there's an Italian restaurant. It was utterly deserted compared to the rest of the building, so we poked around for a bit. 

With no staff in sight it looked like a beautiful show restaurant. 

On the top floor is Petit 5, a space catering to parents and young children. 

Even the stairs leading up to it are so prettily decorated. With the space designed to be child-friendly, there's an element of practicality to Petit 5, including the child-safe gate at the entrance so there's no worry of small children escaping and tumbling down the stairs. When we saw it, M gave me a pointed look as if to remind me of the trauma she suffered when I tripped and pitched myself down a flight of steps when I was nearly two. 

Inside is bright and cheerful, and on the shelves are all manner of cuddly and soft things, including baskets of fluffy toys you can purchase. There's also furniture and children's clothes, but really all I had eyes for were the stuffed animals. 

Look at the little owlet!
There were children gambolling about the play area at the back, and the small café serving this floor had snack options suitable for children, and sandwiches and cakes for the parents. And then there was this massive giraffe. 

We went down the stairs to the last section we hadn't explored - L'atelier on the second floor. We figured it would suit nicely for tea. 

They seated us on the plush throne-like red sofa seats near the bookshelf in the middle of the right arm of the building, so we had a good vantage point to watch everyone around us. To our right, sprawled over the sofa shaped like lips were some young girls, and all four of them were sharing one drink. To be honest, everyone else at L'atelier seemed under 30, save for the couple seated on our left, who looked about 60 and bewildered to be there. 

It was tough picking a dessert. Initially I thought the Cotton Candy Cappuccino was a great choice, but I found out that it was cotton candy atop ice cream flavours I didn't particularly fancy, and couldn't change, so I had to get something else. 

The adjustable bookshelf was a great piece and I sat there admiring it while waiting for our desserts to arrive. 

Remembering the amazing lemonade I had at Café Moraebi, I ordered another one here. Sadly, it tasted mainly of chemical sweetener. 

M's orange tea was similarly blah. Even with the slice of orange there and the juice below, you could hardly taste any citrus. 

When our desserts came we forgot our disappointment over the drinks and got quite excited, because these had been recommended to us and were so nice to look at. 

M's Blueberry Millefeuille was really enjoyable. The pastry was crisp and flaky, the fresh blueberries and blueberry cream nice and sweet. The heart-shaped bowl of fruit salad also went in some ways to assuage her guilt for over-indulging, and the blackcurrant sorbet was also richly fruity. 

My Strawberry Crepe was also good. Yes, it looked deliriously pink, yes, the puff pastries were rather soggy and hard and yes, the pancake itself was squishy and didn't taste of much, but the rest of the dessert held it together. For one, the overwhelming pinkness didn't mean strawberry overkill. 

In spite of the dessert's name, the strawberry sauces up top masked a combination of oranges and fresh cream on the inside of the crepe. The macaron accompanying it was a fragrant blackcurrant, and the biggest surprise of all was the grapefruit sorbet. It was ever so slightly bitter, and made sure the dessert never got too heavy to finish. 

It's a fairly pricey place, and you also get the feeling it's really in the middle of bloody nowhere, but if you ever have an afternoon to spare in Seoul and want to have a taste of the hippest desserts in town, then this is the place to go. 

272, Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 

Tea and Snacks along Garosugil - Godiva Chocolates & VB Café

"Garosu-gil"s basically mean tree lined streets in Korean, but the most famous of them all is the ginko tree-lined Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong. But even with the shade provided by the leafy ginko trees, the heat still got to us about five stores in. And then, we saw the Godiva flagship store and a massive sign advertising their chocolate soft serve. Ice cream, just what we needed. 

There was a period about seven years ago where I'd spend an absurd proportion of my pocket money on Godiva chocolates. I'd go to the nearest store at Takashimaya after school, and buy myself a truffle or two, and slowly eat them on the bus journey home. It got to a point where I was able to carry out a pseudo-scientific study on whether it was better to just let the truffle melt in my mouth, chew on the truffle, or bite it in half and let the flavours mingle. 

(My conclusion: Let the shell melt a little and enjoy that for a bit. While it's still largely hard, bite once through to halve it, savour the sound of the shell snapping, then taste the insides and spread it around with your tongue. Yeah. I had a lot of time to think this through on the bus.)

All this started after I attended one of their chocolate decoration workshops, where we learned how to pipette out designs like the leaf seen below. It's a sneaky but effective marketing campaign, letting people taste your stuff. 

The proven effectiveness of this tactic was probably why they had a plate of truffles left in prime position for visitors to try for free. 

It was a Fruit Cajou truffle, as we found out from the chocolate menu nearby. We each had a whole truffle, then felt guilty for taking so many and stopped, and went to get our  ice cream. 

Godiva only rolled out this chocolate soft serve ice cream this summer, and whoever thought this up is genius. With a chocolate dipped cone coated with crunchy biscuit bits, creamy milk chocolate ice cream decorated with chocolate sauce and decorated with a sliver of branded chocolate, it was utterly delicious.

Even with the light colour of the soft serve, it was intensely chocolate-y and rich. We stood there slowly savouring every last bit of it in the blissfully air-conditioned store before venturing back out into the heat of the day. 

(Another reason why we ate so slowly was because the store had a really good free wifi signal and we were checking our emails. Heh.) 

The ice cream was served to us in dainty holders

Later on, after making our rounds of the stores on both sides of the street, we were famished and desperate to find a place to sit and rest our feet. M & I spied an airy looking café where groups of ladies looked to be having pretty looking drinks, and made a beeline for it. We were seated off the main café area, next to a small alcove where this rather fascinating light fixture-and-chair combo was located. 

Only after we'd ordered our drinks and cakes did we have a proper look about, and realize that the café was really part of a slimming centre run by AmorePacific. VB apparently stands for 'Vitality is just Beauty', and we'd walked straight into their Diet Lab. The gym and consultation rooms were just up the stairs.

Once we figured this out, the super healthy menu choices and random ingredients like 'DX' suddenly made a lot more sense. As did the massive neon sign screaming 'BEAUTY'. 

There's no beauty unless 'EAT'ing is involved
Then we noticed the screen playing a programme documenting the full consultation and gym experience, ending with a light meal at the café. We'd already done our exercise for the day, so coming to this café seemed rather apt. 

It didn't take very long for our things to arrive. M had their special non-alcoholic mojito, which came in a beaker, with extra mint at the side in a bowl with a pestle. 

I had the VB Pink-ade, which came in a tall glass with half a lemon and bits of pomegranate floating around. The drink had a very faint chemical taste to it, which came from the addition of the S'Lite Slimmer DX drink to the lemonade. The drink apparently helps to regulate the oxidation of fatty acids. When I was drinking it I honestly thought it was an appetite suppressant, because I was too full for anything else afterwards. 

I had a slice of the soy cake, which unfortunately tasted as bland as its name suggested. The texture was great and it was soft and fluffy, but it was also really tasteless. The orange blobs of mango purée did very little for it too. 

M opted for the soy ice cream, which also tasted unattractively healthy, alas. 

But it was a beautiful place to just sit and unwind, so we took our time and ate everything so as not to waste it. Whatever they put inside made it impossible for us to even consider having dinner, so we had to skip a meal. 

Godiva: 45, Apgujeong-ro 12-gil, Seoul, South Korea
VB Diet Lab Café: 26, Apgujeong-ro 8-gil, Seoul, South Korea

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Shopping in Garosu-gil and Thai Massage at Dream of Trees

The itinerary called for a stopover in Everland along the route from Gwangju to Seoul, before going for a traditional Korean stage show. Not wanting to see Ligers for the umpteeth time and watch the same performance again, we ran away from the group after writing and signing our own indemnity forms saying that yes, we could take care of ourselves and we wouldn't blame them if we got lost along the way. 

M & I booked a couple of last minute KTX seats, and before the rest of the group even got up for breakfast, took a cab to Gwangju Songjeong to catch the train that would take us to Yongsan station in Seoul. 

We were going on an adventure!

(Our idea of an adventure mainly involved escaping from the bratty children who kept screaming and kicking my chair on the bus, and doing something we actually found enjoyable, like shopping.) 

By noon, before the group was even due to reach Everland, we'd made it all the way to Garosu-gil after hitching our KTX train and navigating the sprawling Seoul subway system. Located on Apgujeong-ro 12-gil, a stretch of road spanning less than one kilometre, Garosu-gil has, in recent years, become a major shopping destination in Seoul. M had visited seven months before, and was completely taken by the laid-back, trendy, rather hipster vibe of the street. 

Unlike the claustrophobic Myeongdong and Dongdaemun areas, Garosu-gil is decidedly more relaxing - although high rents mean that most boutiques are cozy, it's far from a confusing mass of shops crowding into each other. There's also space enough for cool design features. 

Apparently Garosu-gil used to be one of those 'best-kept secrets' sort of locations that Korean celebrities and avid photographers in the know liked to frequent, but it's since become gentrified and trendy (the horror!), and is therefore facing the creeping in of chain stores and an influx of curious visitors. Even so, it's still got much more character than the rather soulless in-your-face luxury of other shopping districts in the affluent Gangnam area. 

The area used to be an artist's enclave where young designers set up their own stores. It later attracted an influx of restaurants and cafés designed with people watching in mind, capitalizing on the impeccably dressed crowd that frequented the area. These days, you can't go more than twenty paces without seeing another eatery, but on a midweek afternoon, the people you're watching are mainly other tourists. 

Still, the stores are an interesting draw. Apart from a smattering of overseas labels, all the boutiques offer looks by local designers. Many proudly carry items bearing Made in Korea labels. Given the general character of the streets, most stores have put in a fair bit of effort into their shop design. There's a mix of industrial minimalism, vintage-chic, impossibly frilly, straightforwardly girly, retro glam and airy & classy. 

After walking into nearly every single store on one side of the street, we were near collapsing when we saw a banner sign advertising Thai massages, with special rates before peak period. We just about qualified for the discount (15 minutes to spare!), we desperately needed a good massage and the price seemed very reasonable, so we found ourselves wandering into a building off the main street and trudging up a flight of stairs till we found ourselves at Dream of Trees

There was a slot opening up soon enough for two to do the one hour foot massage, so we were sat on the plush cushions by the reception and drank the cool lemongrass tea they served. The cups were brought to us on a wooden tray decorated with orchids. As we waited, two separate groups of Japanese tourists wandered in. With no other available masseuses at that moment, they were given later appointments. M & I totally lucked out on timing. 

Elephants and orchids seemed to be the main theme
We changed into the pyjamas provided and kept our things in a locker in the small changing area, before our feet were washed in large bowls of warm water again with orchids in it. At some point during the uber-relaxing massage, the both of us fell asleep. When we came out, it was to cups of hot ginger-y tea. They took a Polaroid shot of us before we left and placed it up on their wall. As we'd guessed, the place is very new. 

The wall of satisfied customers

All refreshed and with the aches in our legs and feet worked out, we continued our trek through the shops. Shopping is definitely an endurance sport. 

Garosu-gil is pricier than other shopping haunts in Seoul, and the markup can be ridiculous for some items, but the quality of the clothing feels better on a whole and it still costs less than high street shopping in Singapore. You're basically paying not to have to wade through a sea of people and search endlessly through poorly-made items to strike gold. At the end of the day, we left the thoroughly explored shops of Garosu-gil, laden with all manner of bits and bobs, including stuff for BB. 

The day's haul

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Daehan Tea Plantation Boseong

The biggest selling point of the South Korea tour we joined was the unique itinerary that brought us all over the country, especially to spots not normally on the radar of other tourists. This included a trip to Daehan Tea Plantation in Boseong County in the South Jeolla Province, beautiful enough to have been used as a filming location for a large number of Korean dramas, yet far enough from the capital of Seoul that it doesn't get too crowded. 

What we weren't expecting, was being quite literally the only visitors there. We also failed to account for the weather. 

A picture we took of a poster of Daehan Tea Plantation

Japanese colonization and the introduction of large scale tea plantation in Boseong Country means that it is currently the largest tea supplying part of the country, responsible for over 40% of South Korea's tea production. Of all the tea plantations, Daehan, established in the 1930s, is the most famous, for the row upon row of tea bushes planted on terraces that follow the natural contours of the hills. It's apparently one of the most beautiful places to visit in South Korea, and a favourite among photography enthusiasts. 

The posters at our lunch stop looked like they'd been there since the 80s, but M & I took pictures of them as insurance. As you can see, the place does look quite gorgeous. In the sun. 

Another picture we took of a poster of Daehan Tea Plantation
Just our luck then, that we visited on a day with a massive downpour. Other visitors mentioned a lush canopy of cedar trees lining the dirt and gravel path that created a sense of romance and wonder, but what we saw looked straight out of a slasher-horror flick. With no one else around, and the café that had been promised us closed and shuttered, the whole placed felt vaguely ominous. 

Don't go into the woods!
We were lucky that the worst of the rain had cleared, but we were still faced with a faint drizzle and some rather oppressive mist. We could vaguely make out a stretch of the plantation as we went up the hill, but that was it. A tea plantation prized for its vastness, and vision up to 20 metres away at best. 

Unable to capture the expanse of scenery the plantation is so well known for, we settled for micro-level photos of the tea bushes. Here is a very complex spider web I found:

Wonder what happened to the spider
M, who has a much vaster reserve of patience than me, stood and adjusted her phone settings until she managed to capture a much nicer shot of the tea leaves. I was suitably impressed. 

Making our way back down the hill, we found that while the main café wasn't operating, there was still a smaller store where we could pick up teas to bring back, and what amounted to a shack was selling a range of refreshments.  

The Menu
I am ashamed to admit to being a green tea snob. I refuse to touch the stuff if it's been adulterated by things like sugar or milk. Green tea ice cream is anathema to me. M tried the ice cream, and enjoyed it, only to get a headache later because it was secretly quite strong. 

My cup contained a pyramid tea bag of their Woojeon tea, a mild and fresh-tasting tea made from the earliest buds that emerge after winter and graded the highest among all the teas. With a very limited amount produced each year, it's also the most expensive variety sold. It seemed almost a travesty to drink it out of a paper cup. 

The drizzle and mist continued unabated, even after we left the plantation, and followed us all the way to our next destination. Maybe one day we'll return, and hopefully it won't be so damn depressing next time. 

Jeollanam-do Boseong-gun Boseong-eup Bongsan-ri 1288-1