A ray of light in a slightly shadier part of town, Hallasan offers a luxurious rendition of Korean cuisine with an education in East Asian culture as a side.
Exposed brick and stone walls elicit the elegant ambience of a Tuscan villa as diners sit at tables styled with linens emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo. A restaurant with high aspirations (aptly named after a volcano that marks the highest point in South Korea), Hallasan has been open for 12 months in cosmopolitan via Guelfa between the showy 1950 American Diner and expat favourite Indian Palace.
Despite some initial confusion about why I’m there (“we don’t have any bookings listed for lunch today”), generous banchan are efficiently laid out on the flecked grey-black marble: two varieties of kimchi, one with tomatoes for Italian tastes and a more traditional version; honeyed pumpkin; soy celery; white cabbage sprinkled with black sesame seeds; daikon in vinegar; spicy onions; and a crunchy vegetable in a fiery dressing once eaten exclusively by the king. Andrea, the English- and Italian-speaking maître, explains how fermentation was once key to surviving the long, hard Korean winter before the advent of fridges. Maldon salt, shredded ginger, an onion sauce and preserved wasabi form the dressings as fresh Japanese wasabi is added to the melange of flavourings using a special shark bone grater.
The centrepiece BBQ is ready to go, and no expense has been spared on importing innovative Korean Instem restaurant technology with in-built suction to eliminate gauche smoky odours. Andrea begins to grill the meat expertly before my eyes. (“We cook the meat for you, controlling the flame. For Koreans, meat is special. Fish is easy to find in Korea. Meat cannot be exported from Korea, so here we use meat from America and Japan.”) Starting with succulent Black Angus, we move on to sirloin neatly wrapped in a lettuce leaf as a refreshing counterpoint to the spicy sauce and miso in which it was marinated. Next up are full-flavoured beef ribs marinated in Korean soy sauce and an umami-rich grilled mushroom before the prized Japanese wagyu appears majestically on a wooden board crowned with a flash of 24 karat gold leaf. Highly marbled and pink in hue, the professional barbecuing skills ensure a singular culinary experience, melting luxuriously in the mouth. The meat extravaganza culminates with two-month dry-aged beef. Unlike the other cuts, this ribeye rocks a decadent intensity reminiscent of Stilton, a result of the long maturation that removes the moisture and ups the tenderness.
Outside the weather is dreary, light K-pop tunes are in the air, and trying the bibimbab is a requirement. A rainbow of colours and flavours to counteract the winter blues, Hallasan serves several versions. Served in a hot stone bowl and mixed at the table, the rice base is topped with vegetables galore, marinated beef, a raw yolk and a piquant tomato sauce. It’s the perfect cold-weather pick-me-up, the Korean take on Tuscany’s ribollita.
On settling the inevitably exorbitant bill (the Kobe weighs in at 216 euro for 200 grams), customers will catch sight of the glittering bronze gong behind the counter. Awarded by the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association, Hallasan is one of only two restaurants (Trattoria dell’Oste is the other one) licensed to serve the special Japanese meat in central Florence, making this a place for very special occasions indeed.
Via Guelfa 98R
+39 055 0730077
Open for lunch and dinner daily. Closed on Wednesdays.