Leaving a Mark in Your Palate and Your Heart
Story: Lorena Jiménez
Pictures: Dianne Pineda-Kim
French food is considered the epitome of exquisite cuisine by many all over the world. After all, Michelin stars, which you may be familiar with, originated in France, a country best known not only for the Eiffel Tower and its delicious patisseries, like the globally popular croissants and pains au chocolat. But also for their wonderful and colorful French cuisine that stands out, with dishes full of flavors.
Some may not be aware that France has a strong regional variance in its cuisine, much like neighboring countries like Italy or Spain. Each part of this beautiful country brings you through its dishes the colors and ambiance of its streets, the personality of the locals, and the flavors of all those ingredients that have been grown and harvested for as long as the eldest members of their community are able to recall.
France can be considered one of the mothers of cuisine, a country in which the importance of good dishes has been passed down for generations as a part of their national pride. Unfortunately, not everybody has had the pleasure of trying authentic traditional French food.
Food in France can go from the more refreshing provençal dishes served in the south to the nourishing meals that are supposed to warm up your winters in front of your chimney after coming back in from the snowy streets up in the north. French cuisine, like the French people themselves, is unique, strong, and has something to say. It is a cuisine that, if you have not had the pleasure to try I highly recommend that you do so because it will very possibly add a whole new dimension to your to your palate.
Not for everyone, but reserved for those who know how to appreciate it
Do you know the feeling of recent discoveries? That feeling of finding out something really unique, something unexpected that you really like. It’s like having a little secret only with yourself, something that for now you might be one of the few lucky ones that know about it.
That was how I felt when stepping into L´Empreinte, a spot in Yeonnam-dong that, even though it is not technically new - it has actually been running for almost four years - has been able to maintain the emotion and excitement of things as good as new. With a timeless decor that could have been put together just yesterday, L´Empreinte aims to bring a little bit of charming France to the other side of the world.
It felt a little bit like magic after crossing its doors, like stepping out of Seoul for a moment right into the center of somewhere else. The decor, somewhere in between rustic and modern, fills up the room, with every small little detail carefully considered, from beautiful handwritten notes decorating the bathroom walls, to small lavender bouquets adding color and scent in unexpected corners. It even has traditional wooden tables brought all the way from France. All to create a specific ambience that was practically designed and custom-made only by the lovely team running this place themselves.
A Perfect Mix of Cultures
Yunjin and Grégory - the team running this spot - are both marriage and business partners, a couple that has perfectly fused not only both cultures but also how to best manage L´Empreinte´s clients and their needs. Grégory takes care of the kitchen while Yunjin takes care of customers in what they like to call “notre salon” - “our living room” in French.
They describe L´Empreinte as almost like having a family, where they constantly grow and learn how to take care of everyone. As Yunjin explained, “Having a French restaurant in Korea is not always easy, since many people might not exactly understand the French culture on the table. This is not only about the taste of the food but also the mannerism that is why we need to provide a catered experience and approach our clients differently.”
Yunjin puts a lot of effort into properly training everyone that is part of their staff, for them to understand how to take aspects of both cultures into account. She knows that every client has a different taste and different requirements and that those standards should be catered to properly. That is why even when the final choice is up to the client, she makes sure that her and her staff members are able to explain certain things and give clients the best recommendations, so they can have the most real experience concerning French gastronomy.
“In Europe, many countries are used to having a specific order for dishes, a first dish or appetizer that might be followed by other dishes and capped by the main dish. In Korea most places serve everything together, so if we don't explain properly some clients might be waiting to get their main dish to eat it together with their appetizers while we would be at the same time waiting for them to finish the first dish in order to bring the next one.”
It might seem quite simple but that is of course not the only thing that she needs to make sure every member of their team understands. There are many other things that need to be properly addressed, even something as basic as clearing up the table, needs its own routine. “While our French clients prefer their table cleared out as quickly as possible so they can sit and talk, our Korean clients might feel rushed or pressured to leave if we remove the dishes immediately, which is why training all members of our family to understand our clients and their needs is rather important.”
Authenticity is their power
Yujin who has lived abroad many years brings knowledge for both Korean and foreign customers to the salon, while her husband Grégory, a French native whose hometown is close to the mountains near three countries, is the main chef at L´Empreinte. He works creatively in the kitchen to maintain his cooking and keep himself up-to-date, while still making sure to keep his dishes as authentic as possible.
“This kitchen for me is my special spot. Most places around here that had the same structure closed down their terraces, but I was 100 percent sure that I wanted to keep all these windows when we got the place,” he explained.
For Grégory not only keeping an European style terrace was important, but more so to have a good amount of natural light, as the team and himself spend a good amount of hours working and he considers natural light necessary to keep the mood up and everyone working there inspired, happy and healthy. “Our kitchen is open and has a lot of light as I want to feel free to be able to cook with all my emotions, and bringing the best dishes to our clients.”
Concerning his cuisine and the dishes served at L´Empreinte he explains that even though he has created some recipes while in Korea, the main point for him in the kitchen is to keep things as real and authentic as possible. “That is why most of our clients come here; they know we have specials that are only served here and that is why they come to visit us, to get some of those dishes. To get the real thing.”
In order to make those specials, he mentions that he has learned a lot during the past five years. “I know for a fact that if I want to stay on top of my game, I need to make everything homemade. In France is quite easy to get suppliers for many products, but being so far from France, it is too difficult to keep myself up-to-date and find good new suppliers, so now I focus on making everything that I can here to deliver the best quality.”
Leaving a Mark
After trying the food at L ́Empreinte, I completely understood what Grégory and Yunjin had been talking about during our interview. I was brought back to my childhood with every bite, bites filled with memories of when I used to go to the French alps for skiing competitions. I felt as if I had been transported back then and there, eating in a cozy winter spot next to a fireplace.
The food at L´Empreinte has special powers. Not only the power to make your stomach a bit fuller and bring you the instant happiness of tasting something delicious, but also the mesmerizing power of evoking feelings through each bite. Feelings of happiness, feelings of wanderlust, or even feelings of peace and serenity, with their deep flavored dishes, those kind of flavors only achieved with a lot of passion, slow cooking, the perfect seasoning, and the best ingredients.
We tried the homemade salmon gravlax terrine stuffed with fresh goat cheese and homemade sun dried tomatoes, rigatoni pasta with garlic butter sauce and baked duck breast, the lamb shank with red wine sauce and vegetables, the delicate milfeulle for dessert, and the homemade bread - which as a fellow European always gets some extra points in my book - and, honestly, I would not be able to tell you which one was my favorite.
Each had a special charm, but the mesmerizing thing is that those are apparently not the only great choices. Of the many that I had been recommended before visiting, the authentic French onion soup, the homemade foie gras, and most of the homemade patisseries - yes they also have a pastry chef - are still on my wishlist for my next visit.
Chez moi means something similar to “my home” in French and that is exactly what L´Empreinte and their lovely “family” want to recreate. They want to have a spot that gives their customers an experience, a place where their clients come to celebrate big events - like anniversaries or proposals - to share some of their memories and part of their heart. This duo does not want to be just another place to eat at as their favorite part of having a restaurant is the possibilities you have to create a connection with people.
“We want to stay humane and proof of that is that many of our long-term clients have ended up becoming good friends. We still remember something one of our usual clients told us before leaving Korea. He is a monk and he told us that for him, L´Empreinte was like a monastery, and that really touched our hearts. That someone of such huge faith compared our ‘salon’ to such a calm and important place for him. It was quite some time ago, but we still remember it like it was yesterday.”
As many of you also might, I fully agree with this lovely duo that restaurants should not be just about eating and leaving; they should add emotion and experience. That is why if you are on the lookout for a new spot that can be a source of calm, a new special place to build memories, or just a spot where you can get a good interpretation and representation of French gastronomy, I highly recommend that you give L´Empreinte a try, where you can find a piece of France among the streets of Yeonnam-dong.
Tuesday to Friday 5pm-12am
Sunday 11:30am-10pm (Break 4-5pm)
244 Donggyo-ro, Mapo-gu, Seoul. (Yeonnamdong 260-15) - 마포구 동교로 244 거구빌딩 2층 (연남동 260-15)
Visit there instagram here