Named after one of Korea’s prosperous ancient kingdoms, The Shilla was converted from a state guest house of the Republic of Korea to a luxury hotel in 1979. The basement and ground floor are dominated by high-end shops, while the top floor of the hotel is the location of La Yeon, one of only two Michelin 3-star restaurants in the country.
As you might expect, the dining room is ultra-spacious, with only a few tables, and it offers a superb view of the city’s skyline. There are two tasting menus (Yeon and Shilla) on offer, both of which are long and which differ by just a few courses. The Shilla is the more expensive of the two, as it features Hanwoo beef as the main course. Fortunately, the whole table doesn’t need to order the same menu, so we ordered one of each. Korean wine pairing is also provided for both menus, allowing diners to choose from a wide range of Korean wines – most of which were actually spirits.
About the food
Judging by older online reviews of this restaurant, its menu used to be a poor fusion of European and Korean cuisines. However, things seem to have changed significantly – these days, I’d describe it as much more like traditional Korean cooking, slightly tuned to meet contemporary tastes. It seemed obvious to me that the place has improved a lot over the last few years, a change no doubt triggered by Michelin 3-star award. And it’s fair to say that every dish was carefully plated to 3-star standard, even though not every dish delivered to 3-starexpectations in terms of taste. In fact, some of the starters were quite bland, particularly the Nine delicacies, which is traditionally a royal court dish. It was, it’s true, a very colourful and attractive-looking dish, but it tasted of. . . well, nothing, really; it was just a wrap of some finely julienned vegetables and mushrooms. Quite how they arrived at its name, I’ve no idea, as I couldn’t detect a single delicacy, let alone nine! And the Royal Hot Pot had a similarly misleading name. Consisting of a small pot of beef broth, topped with neatly arranged slices of fish, beef, and vegetable, it – again – tasted of nothing much. I wouldn’t have liked to be in the shoes of any chef who served such a dish to the Emperor, back in the days of the ancient kingdoms!
Still, these two dishes were the only poor ones in what was, otherwise, a very decent meal. The abalone on rice porridge, for example, was excellent – definitely one of the highlights. The abalone was soft without being rubbery, and had an intense flavour, while the rice porridge was creamy and well-seasoned. Basically, it was a luxury version of a common staple food (rice porridge). And both meat courses were exceptional. The seared pork belly, with a sweet-savoury dried persimmon soybean paste, almost melted in my mouth, and the chargrilled Hanwoo ribeye had the perfect ratio of fat to meat resulting in a gorgeous aroma and a very satisfying mouthfeel. Great ingredients and precise execution!
About the Service
So, what of service? Well, sadly, this is yet another of those places, so common in Asia, where the service team simply had no appreciation of what a fine dining experience should be. On three occasions, we had to ask them to slow things down a bit – and even then it was pretty damn fast. The third course was served when we still hadn’t quite finished our second course! I pointed out to the manager that we’d ordered the wine pairing, so we needed time between courses to finish one wine before the next arrived (most of which were actually spirits ranging from 20% to 45% alcohol!) But it had no effect – the staff were much too worried about not going home early. In fact, the sommelier and manager disappeared from scene way before 9pm. By the time the fifth course arrived (only 45min into the meal!), I was just finishing my second glass of liquor – and still had half of each glass from each of the other courses to drink!
Overall, every course was carefully cooked and well-presented. But, although there were a few delicious courses, I’m in no rush to return. Sure, if you’re looking for somewhere to dine while enjoying a great view, and price isn’t an issue, this is definitely a place to consider. Especially if you’re in a hurry! But if you prefer a more relaxed environment, where you can absorb the whole dining experience and get value for the (considerable) price you’ve paid, I suggest you look elsewhere.