When people ask me what I think is the best restaurant in Korea, I need not hesitate to mention this wonderful restaurant situated in a back street a stone's throw away from the bustling shopping district of Apkujong-dong. Xi'an is Asian Fusion Cuisine at it's best with a menu that blurs the lines between Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, and American. The sumptuous and wonderfully laid out dishes remind me of the great "California Cuisine" restaurants of Los Angeles sans the famous Hollywood celebrities.
You just know this place is different as soon as you walk up the stairs and open beautiful double-metal doors to be greeted by a beautiful hostess wearing a Chinese chongsam. Inside you will immediately notice the open kitchen with counter-style seating that resembles a high-tech sushi bar. Upon seating you can't but notice that there is no view; the windows look out onto a rock garden with the view of the city blocked off by huge black steel panels. The furniture all goes along a black and bamboo color scheme giving the place a Blade-Runnerish, techno-Japanese look that feels surprisingly peaceful and secluded. But Xi'an is not a place to come for the view - it is a place to come for the joy of eating delicious food.
I quickly found the reason for the wonderful authenticity of the fusion food found at Xi'an - their Executive Chef Todd Nishimoto. Mr. Nishimoto began working for the world-famous Wolfgang Puck restaurant Granita, a beautifully romantic restaurant located in Malibu. He went on to work at Wolfgang Puck's famous "Chinese-California" restaurant Chinois on the Main in Santa Monica, a stone's throw away from Michael's, the restaurant credited for starting the California Cuisine (known as Asian Fusion throughout the rest of the world) revolution. He also spent some time working in the world-famous Spago, where chefs prepare dinners for the Hollywood elite. Before coming to work in Korea, he was working at Patina, one of Los Angeles's most revered eateries. Xian's executive chef definitely has a resume worth boasting about.
But, enough about Xi'an's fabulous chef, what about the food? I can tell you that you will not be disappointed by the dining experience found at this restaurant. All the ingredients are fresh and, unlike other foreign food restaurants in Korea, ingredients are not substituted with Korean "equivalents." What you taste here is exactly what the food tastes like in the finest restaurants of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and in the posh restaurants of New York.
The menu changes regularly, but there are some staples that are strongly recommended. For starters, the Xi'an (Chinese) Chicken Salad was superb. The salad was freshly made, the chicken was crunchy and delicious, and the dressing was just heavenly - very much unlike similar dishes found at other "Asian fusion" restaurants where the chicken is soggy from sitting out too long. If you like tuna sashimi, then I strongly recommend the Tempura Ahi Tuna Sashimi, which had just the right amount of flakiness and was perfectly cooked on the outside and raw on the inside. I wish they had a seared rare Ahi tuna with wasabi sauce starter, but the Tempura cooked tuna was a fascinating delight. The menu includes a small list of appetizers, and I can easily recommend all of them except one - stay away from the house salad (mixed greens with house vinegrette); But only because there are so many other tastier dishes on the menu! Appetizer prices range from 14,500 - 17,300 won.
I have always been a fan for lamb and duck, and no Fusion restaurant menu would be complete without both. The Cantonese Duck with fresh persimmon sauce was just perfect, and was prepared almost as good as the duck at Citrus, my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. The duck was tender, not overcooked, and the persimmons added a special zing to the dish. If you like lamb, you will find no finer lamb chops in all of Korea. The lamb is served in a delectable Sake Mustard sauce that is just out of this world! No western menu would be complete without the staple Tenderloin or grilled salmon, and the Xi'an versions are definite winners.
There is also a grilled black tiger shrimp dish that's wrapped with garlic noodle vermicelli and then fried; this has got to be the best shrimp dish in all of Korea and you will notice many patrons ordering it for good reason - it is unbelievable! Xi'an also has a live Shanghai lobster dish but if you're used to sweet, juicy, delectable Maine lobsters, don't bother - you won't find anything like that here or anywhere else in Korea for that matter. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure the Shanghai Lobster found here is sweet, juicy, and delectable, but don't expect anything big. Entree prices start at 28,300 - 32,800 won, with the lobster topping out at 55,000 won.
Xi'an also offers a selection of "side dishes" that are anything but side dishes. There are rice dishes, noodle dishes, and vegetable dishes. I recommend all of the fried rice dishes. If you've ever been to a Chinese restaurant in the US, and you liked their yang-chow fried rice, you're going to love Xi'an's concoctions! There's vegetable fried rice, black Chinese herb rice, and duck fried rice, which, of course, comes highly recommended. The noodles were interesting, but you're probably safer ordering the rice dishes. Side dishes range from 8,000 - 11,000 won.
Because California-style (or Korean-style for that matter) servings are so small, it is strongly recommended that for every two people, you should order one starter, two entrees, and a side-dish. With a bottle of wine from their extensive wine list, this can add up to some serious money. After trying this wonderful restaurant, I am sure you will agree that it was money well spent.
What more is there to say about Xi'an? The chef comes with incredible credentials with food that cannot be matched elsewhere. Sure there are dozens of Asian Fusion restaurants in Korea, but most of them have chefs that apprenticed here and you will find no executive chef in Korea that has the credentials Xi'an's chef has. In this respect Xi'an stands above the rest.
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