One of things I miss about living in the leafy West End of Glasgow is the idea of a neighborhood bistro – somewhere near your house that you can drop in for a good, reasonably priced meal, usually Italian or French. Now, perhaps I’m biased because it’s 90 seconds from my front door (it used to be 60 seconds, but the crabby old halmoni next door has locked her gate to stop us using the alleyway outside her house as a short cut). But La Marmite, a new French restaurant in Haebangchon, looks like it might be able to fill that role. It comes at a price, as we’ll see, but it’s well worth your time.
In the space formerly occupied by the late unlamented Holy Smoke, just up from Bonny’s Pizza, La Marmite takes its name from the traditional French cooking pot rather than the salty British sandwich spread. I walk past there every day, so I ended up chatting regularly with the owners as they cleared out the detritus from the old place and got it ready for their own launch this time last week. Having previously run a takeaway food service business elsewhere in HBC, and the odd pop-up, they were now raring to go in their own dedicated restaurant space.
In its current (as of May 2016) soft opening phase, it offers a limited menu of French-inspired dishes including duck, squid and beef, with more to come as the kitchen beds in.
On my first visit last week, I went straight for the butcher’s cut steak with gratin dauphinois. If I were on death row, this would pretty much be my last meal, and La Marmite’s version is ideal. The rib end is not as tender a cut of beef as, say, filet, but makes up for it with a nice layer of fat and loads of flavour. Cooked to a perfect medium rare, it hit the spot. The dauphinois potatoes were also made the way I like them – not swimming in cream or cheese the way some inferior versions are.
The plate came without vegetables, which to be clear I regard as a definite plus – my 24,500 won was not being wasted on empty vitamins. However, if you prefer more greens, a different dish might be in order.
Returning a few days later with a hungry companion, I had the chance to try some more of the menu. First up was gravlaks, which is Scandinavian style cured salmon. Though it’s a simple enough dish to make, the execution comes down to two fundamentals; the freshness of the fish and the mixture of sweet and salt in the cure.
Being from Scotland and brought up on smoked salmon (well, not exactly brought up on it, because I’m not rich, but you get the idea), I prefer a saltier, stronger flavour. As such I found the mild, slightly sweet cure on this gravlaks a little underwhelming. I might have preferred it with a little pickle, in the Russian style, or a sharper mustardy sauce, in the Swedish style, to punch up the flavour; or just with a little rye bread, a couple of new potatoes sprinkled with dill… whatever.
On the other hand, the restrained citrus and vodka mixture hadn’t toughened the fish at all; the texture was perfect and it was as fresh as anything, and looked just gorgeous shimmering and glistening in the subdued restaurant lighting. We devoured it in seconds.
Other starters at the moment include stir-fried squid Nice-style, and a goat’s cheese salad that the couple at the next-door table invited me to photograph when they saw me brandishing my camera. It looked very good for the price (11,500) and they pronounced themselves very happy with it.
Back at our table, next up was a dish of raviolis verts with seared prawns (22,000). The ravioli were, as advertised, a deep forest green colour, and very tasty – so much so that I was amazed to find that they were stuffed with broccoli and parmesan, because I loathe broccoli! Yet these slipped down great with a cold glass of the well-priced French sauvignon blanc.
The prawns were large, juicy and seared just right, and the sauce (made from prawn shells and heads, a little wine, and some turmeric to bring out the mustardy-yellow colour) was aromatic and thick. As with the gravlaks, if I were a large hungry man – which I am – I would probably skip this in favour of a more substantial meat-based option, but as a light summer dish, it hit the spot.
For me, the best dish I’ve had at La Marmite so far is the magret de canard – peppered duck breast, pan-roasted skin-side down, with polenta and an orange zest sauce. I’ve had so much bad duck in my life, not least in Korea, that it was a pleasure to taste a perfectly cooked version for a change.
The sauce was subtle rather than cloyingly sweet and the polenta, not particularly my favourite thing in life, worked so well with the dish. Next time I might try swapping out the polenta for the dauphinois potatoes, but either way you approach it, this was just a really good dish, and very fairly priced at 19,000.
Desserts are a strong point here, and the two we had were good. The creme brulee was destroyed by my dining companion so quickly that the only photo I managed to get was snatched and blurry, so you’ll just have to imagine it. The caramelised sugar carapace on top cracked easily at the first blow from our spoons and the flavour was balanced and not sickly sweet. After my first couple of spoonfuls, she smacked away my hand and that was the last taste I got of that.
The other dessert we tried was a coconut-oil panacotta (above) with chocolate cream. The panacotta was firm enough to hold its shape but still yielding to the spoon, the flavour again quite subtle, not at all heavy on the coconut as I’d imagined. My co-eater found the chocolate far too rich, but I couldn’t get enough of it.
As the restaurant staff were engaged in trying to resolve a dispute over what sort of plating looked more enticing, we got a complimentary second helping presented in a slightly different way. It was as good as the first, and to hell with the plating. An excellent dessert.
Prices are on the higher side for the neighbourhood. As the provisional menu demonstrates, starters are 10-13,000 and entrees range between 19 and 24,500. Depending on what you order, you may find the portion size to be adequate, or on the small side; if I’d had gravadlax followed by ravioli, I’d have certainly still been hungry after 35,000 won. On the other hand, not everyone is a fat bastard like me, so your mileage may vary; the salad followed by the steak would have filled me right up, and three courses left me completely satisfied.
Desserts are very keenly priced at 5,000 each, and the house wines are 27,000 per bottle, which is pretty good value (and the sauvignon blanc is very palatable). More dishes are being added on an ongoing basis. Weekend brunch is also available and looks great.
The interior is relatively dimly lit (trying to get these photos to come out was hell!), and the overall ambience is very nice. The kitchen is semi-open – you can see chef Kevin Attal slaving away over the stove. There’s also a nice deck outside for you to have a drink and a sly cigarette, if the mood takes you. This would be a terrific place to bring a date but frankly (and in the likely absence of a date) I can easily see myself dropping in on my way home from work for a main course and a glass of wine. Or just a bottle of wine.
If I’m gushing with praise a bit, it’s because I’m glad that La Marmite has opened up in my neighbourhood, hitherto better known for mediocre pizza and burgers. I hope they find a market, because these are guys who are quite clearly passionate about food – speaking to Kevin, you can hear his excitement about putting a new dish on the menu, or trying out something different. You may not have the depth of wallet to make this your weekly Friday night spot, but I’d encourage everyone to head along and give it a try. We need more places in HBC like this, and fewer places serving nonsense food to weekend tourists.
- Category: French
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Peppered duck breast (19,000 won)
- Subway: Noksapyeong Station (녹사평역) exit 2
- Directions: Walk up the road towards Haebangchon (if you don’t know where that is, you get there by walking up towards Namsan with the US base directly on your left until you get to the kimchi pots, bear left and keep walking.) When you get to Bonny’s Pizza – there’s normally a line of Korean girls outside, day and night – turn left and La Marmite is just up the street past Hill Cafe.
- Hours: Currently in soft opening phase, it’s open for dinner every day except Monday, and for brunch on the weekend.
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