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Is this Korea's most beautiful restaurant?
Unamjeong in Gangwon Province proves there's more to great dining than good food
Unamjeong restaurant in Gangwon Province has a dubious claim to fame: the most expensive oxtail soup in Korea.
A bowl here will set you back ₩47,000 (US$42).
But I think it's memorable for another reason: being the most beautiful restaurant in the country.
I was introduced to Unamjeong by a photographer couple on a ski trip to Gangwon Province. We were staying at the High1 Resort (a four-hour drive south east of Seoul), and they were the first to claim the resort's restaurant might just be the most beautiful in Korea.
A "beautiful" government-run ski resort restaurant in the Gangwon Province? Needless to say I was skeptical.
Then they marched me down to Unamjeong, and I was floored. And enchanted.
Now I try to go back every few months.
My favorite part is peeking into the grounds from the wooden gate.
The first glimpse is magical -- an exquisite composition of painted pagodas, stone pathways and manicured gardens.
Occasionally, you’ll spot a hanbok-clad member of the staff sweeping the paths or carrying small pots from one hall to another. But they will pay you no attention, adding to the charming feeling of going back in time.
In the summer a baduk board is laid out in the center of one of the pagodas, with bowls of stones placed neatly on either side, ready for play. Dozens of urns, filled with homemade gochujang, doenjang and various wines, stand outside the kitchens.
To call Unamjeong merely a "restaurant" is to do it a grave injustice. It is a work of art.
The eight-structure hanok restaurant, located on the edge of a lake on the resort, is literally straight out of a book -- Korea’s most famous comic book series, “Gourmet” (식객).
The 4,270-square-meter complex was originally the set for the 2008 drama based on and named after the comic series.
In the comic, Unamjeong is the name of Korea’s most famous restaurant, run by a family descended from the last royal chef of the Joseon Dynasty.
After serving as the backdrop for the drama, the complex was renovated into a real, working restaurant, and opened in 2009 with the lofty aim of living up to its fictional namesake.
“The hanok I am used to is more messy and worn looking, but Unamjeong manages to capture the essential beauty of traditional Korean architecture while being remarkably pristine,” says weekend visitor Joanne Lee, whose family owns one of the oldest hanok estates in the country.
And Unamjeong's food isn't too shabby either.
The inspiration for all the dishes is palace cuisine “reinterpreted in a modern way,” says staff member Cho Sang-sub.
The prices are high, so the restaurant is most popular with Korean visitors who had a good day at the tables at Gangwonland, the only Korean casino open to Korean nationals, or with wealthy Chinese travelers.
The restaurant’s menu changes every two months, and the course of the moment is the “Unequaled Jeollanamdo Set Meal” (천하일품 남도 반상), which features “Royal Court Style Salad,” chopped baby octopus, fermented skate and steamed pork slices, eel stew, sliced raw beef with bamboo shoots and raw crab in soy sauce for ₩80,000 per person.
And that extortionate oxtail soup?
“I was extremely skeptical that any soup would be worth that much,” says Jae-min Lee, a food writer. “But when I tried it I was surprised -– the taste is deep and marvelous. I’m still not convinced that it is worth its price, though.”
Unamjeong, Sabuk-ri 424, Sabuk-eup, Jeongseon-gun, Gangwon Province, Korea; +82 33 590 7631; open noon-3 p.m., 6 p.m.-10 p.m; www.high1.com/unamjeongIntro
Can you find a more beautiful place than this? Tell us in the comments.
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