It’s not so very long ago that someone proposing to open a top-quality foreign bistro in the back streets of Itaewon would have been politely recommended to book some sessions with a good analyst. Some old-timers may lament that the place is not what it was, but the range and quality of eating options in the greater Itaewon area is fast becoming genuinely impressive – and, to those of us who remember the dive bars and dodgy doorways with a sort of wary nostalgia, the change in the neighborhood is still scarcely believable.
Since opening in mid-2015, Appia has been quietly gaining plaudits for the quality and ambition of its food, but it remains off the radar of many local residents, perhaps because those “in the know” have been desperate to keep this hidden gem to themselves. So it’s time to let readers of Groove magazine in on the secret; Appia is one of the best restaurants in the city, let alone Itaewon, and is well worth your time and hard-earned cash.
Chef Jun Bum Oh has experience at the very highest level, including working for the legendary Thomas Keller at Bouchon, and it shows in the execution of the dishes on offer at Appia. Styling itself as a contemporary American restaurant, Appia’s ever-changing menu offers a range of interesting appetizers and salads, as well as a number of pasta and meat dishes.
A pickled beet salad (KRW20,000) comes paired with sweet orange dressing and the most gorgeous homemade ricotta cheese, a dish zesty and vibrant enough to have even the most hardened beetroot-sceptic such as your correspondent digging in for more. The crab cake (KRW16,000) is another terrific appetizer; crunchy and crispy on the outside, but airy and light on the inside with no stodgy filler, it’s served with a delicious tomato aioli and some well-judged red cabbage slaw.
Some of the centerpiece main dishes require pre-ordering due to the preparation time required to make them. If Appia’s signature roast chicken is any guide, it’s a bit of pre-planning that’s well worth the effort. Brined for twelve hours before roasting, the resulting bird is a gorgeous deep chestnut brown. It’s brought to the table to display to the diners, a tantalizing preview of coming attractions, before being whisked back into the open kitchen to be carved and served with some mashed potato and mushrooms. The asking price for this dish is KRW43,000, but after tasting it you’re extremely unlikely to begrudge the outlay; the meat is juicy and tender, the skin salty and crispy, the portion size (split between two people) fairly generous. It’s a minor miracle of a dish.
Apart from the chicken, there’s a T-bone steak and prime rib on offer, both of which require pre-ordering, or mains like NY strip steak and pork belly for those who’ve arrived more spontaneously. Prices for the beef dishes in particular can rise pretty high by the standards of the district, and even the more modest selections from the small but well-chosen wine list will take another chunk out of your paycheck. But with pasta dishes hovering around the KRW20,000 mark, there’s no need to break the bank if your wallet doesn’t stretch that far.
Sweets are limited to a single dessert of the day, which on the occasion that Groove visited was a fabulous apple cobbler served with a somewhat bland vanilla ice cream–the only ho-hum note of the meal. Apart from dinner, Appia also offers a somewhat Mexican-inspired weekend brunch menu with items like huevos rancheros and a chicken and bacon quesadilla to tempt you through the door.
Situated in a quiet side street on the hill overlooking Noksapyeong Station, it’s a very smart-looking restaurant, with ambience and service to match the quality of the food. There’s a small rooftop terrace to enjoy a post-dinner drink and the whole place exudes a discreet charm–a perfect date venue, but also the sort of place you could visit for a casual meal without feeling out of place.
Itaewon is lucky to have Appia and it deserves just a little more fame, because it’s a terrific restaurant with very little to fault in either concept or execution. If this is gentrification, long may it continue.
Itaewon-ro 143-10, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.