French food is having a bit of a moment in Hongdae. With L’Impasse cementing its muscular and meaty reputation and Yec’hed Mat dishing out Breton-inspired crepes, quality everyday French has never been as accessible. Opened just two months ago, L’empreinte is looking to make its mark with a lamb-centric menu in addition to French classics and decadent desserts.
The restaurant is situated just off the new green space outside of Hongdae exit 3, a part of what folks are beginning to know as Yeonnam-dong, an area exploding with fantastic food and drink thanks to Itaewon’s saturation and absurd rents. Sporting an intimate, tree-level veranda, L’Empreinte is well-above the ever-increasing bustle of its locale.
Unassuming French antiques fill the interior, including a 150-year-old farmhouse table and marble fireplace. A photo of owner/chef Gregory Defraize’s grandfather is slyly included in the menu as well as nifty maps of French wine and liquor regions created by fellow owner, Kevin Scheid. A large dessert case beckons upon entrance. Infused liquors sit temptingly above a long bar which leads to an open kitchen in the back.
L’Empreinte’s lamb menu comes from a desire to stand out and is also a slight nod to the area’s history as a hot spot for Taiwanese and Chinese restaurants. The star is a lamb shank braised for three hours in a port wine reduction. It sits up in its serving pan begging to be mawed, caveman-style. To do that, however, would be betraying the delicacy of this dish provided by the striking pink peppercorns. It’s both primal and effete. Having been so slowly cooked, the meat falls off the bone and you will want to have all of the tender baby potatoes, roasted cherry tomatoes, and haricort verts which are soaking in the shank’s juices. There is also a lamb chop with lavender jam and lamb burger with emmental cheese and beetroot which seem like required eating upon return visits.
You might want to start your meal with the warm goat cheese salad. A healthy dollop of fresh goat cheese sits atop pliant puff pastry kissed with honey. The accompanying salad, upon close inspection, includes endives and red radish. Innocuous enough as natural inclusions in French cuisine, in Korea, these are only grace a Defraize’s sourcing black magic.
Despite the presence of such temptations atop the menu, a warning: leave room for dessert. On this reviewer’s visit, there was a lavender creme brulee (though L’empreinte has been known to also do a version made with Chartreuse, a liqueur made from brandy and herbs). The lavender version had an excellent sticky caramel crust which gave way to a not-too-rich lavender-colored custard underneath. A very un-French but must try dessert is the Amarula Cheesecake made with the Kahlua-like South African cream liqueur, Amarula. Creamy, yet still light on its feet, it is served with a striking berry coulis that provides some nice acidity.
If neither lamb nor desserts are your thing, L’empreinte also serves up French bistro classics like duck a l’orange, steak frites and beef bourguignon. The food here is affordable and approachable. After all, if an average French meal was haute cuisine, how would the people in France manage to eat every day? By adhering to French traditions while adding its own twists, L’empreinte is staking its place in Yeonnam-dong and Hongdae’s ever more sophisticated food landscape.
Address: Yeonnam-dong 260-15, Mapo-gu, Seoul
Hours: Tues-Sun 11am-11pm