Coupage, Seattle, Washington

I don’t believe it’s possible to write our opinion about something in an “objective” fashion. This is an odd myth that has arisen among those in the journalism profession. The people who review restaurants for a living in the mainstream media have of course taken to this code like vinegar to rice. Being that they are on the very periphery of journalism it’s no surprise that they are some of the most fervent believers in this myth.

While I don’t believe it’s possible to be objective, I do believe it’s possible (and important) to be fair. Fair means disclosing your bias, being transparent about your perspective, being consistent, and honest. So when I write about restaurants I try to be as clear as possible about my personal priorities. I know they don’t match all other folks but at least they’re out there. Service, decor, and even price to a certain extent are all pretty much secondary (if not tertiary) for me. Food, namely flavor and texture, are really the primary concern. If there was one other factor that I weighed in any significant fashion, I would have to say it’s location. While I long for Star Trek transporters to take us to Tokyo for dinner, they’re still not quite ready for prime time. So until then the reality for most people is that you have to factor in how hard it is to get to a place to its overall rating.

For example, the best ramen noodle shop in Seattle may be great… for Seattle. But it may not compare to a decent stand in Tokyo. But for a place you can actually get to, it could be considered quite enjoyable. And while proximity has some impact, there also has to be a baseline and a standard. So as it turns out, in reality that Ramen shop in Seattle is not very good even factoring in that you can actually get to it. So in this case even proximity could not overcome the quality of the soup.

This brings us to a space in my neighborhood that has gone through about 6 restaurants in the past year (or something like that). Each restaurant was progressively worse than the next. Each bringing their own non-descript and cliche melange of crap to their table. Each searching for an indentity and not realizing the only place an authentic perspective can come from is from inside the proprietors and food professionals. And then, finally, a restaurant called Coupage arrived. With the cooks having experience in Manhattan, and the owner already a successful restarauteur from Portland, the stage was set. The food? Korean French mix.

You may be surprised, but I hope that I will absolutely adore every restaurant I try. I’d much rather have a great experience than a bad one. I don’t enjoy being disappointed. Additionally, I would absolutely love having a restaurant that I really enjoyed around the corner from me. And finally, my favorite perspective on food is that of someone taking a very refined, minimalist, and modern technical approach to a very traditional cuisine. This doesn’t mean reinventing the food. Just using every evolved technique to make the single best examples of a culinary tradition that’s evolved over decades or even centuries. Cuisines like Italian, French, Japanese, etc. I love perfect examples of these cuisines, and often I find that people with a deep background in and respect for the tradition as well as an incredible facility with modern techniques and procuring the best ingredients do the best job of preparing that cuisine. Refined authenticity is probably the best way to describe it.

So you might be able to imagine my excitement when I heard that a Korean restaurant featuring chefs from a French restaurant in Manhattan (my second favorite food city in the world) were coming to cook around the corner from my house I could barely contain my excitement. But after three visits, Coupage is still not living up to the hopes I had for it. I’ve wrestled with this post for some time thinking on and off about it for literally months. Normally, if a restaurant isn’t one I recommend, I don’t write about it at all. Why waste all our time talking about a place I wouldn’t want you to go. What I’ve never done is write about a restaurant that I think could stand improvement and get very specific about what I think they should do to improve. There are many reasons for this.

The main reason I don’t give advice is because, what the hell do I know? These people are running a business. I don’t believe that I’m typical of most people who go out to eat, and I’ve never had to run a restaurant (not to mention that I’m not a particularly good cook). The combination of my inexperience, and their risk means it’s really none of my business. I don’t have to eat there, but do they really need me blabbing on about what they should do to improve so that I like them? But for Coupage I’m breaking that rule. They’re right next door to me. So I really have no choice but to offer my unwanted advice. I’ve decided that I will blather on about what they should do because I so desparately want them to be the restaurant I imagined. The most frustrating part is that I think they can be.

Let’s start off with our most recent meal there. It was pretty representative of the others we’d experienced. For a space that was tainted with the stench of failed restaurants the owners did a nice job dressing and recasting the interior of coupage. The place feels good. Feels like a restaurant you could enjoy going back to again and again. Refined, but comfortable. Our meal started off with Asian Clam Chowder – A Clear Broth with a Rich Smoky Flavor Enhanced by Rustic Korean Bean Paste and Smoky Bacon Foam. The soup was a bit thin at first but warmed to it after several spoonfuls. That said, it wasn’t super integrated. There was simply not enough flavor to go around. I had to go hunting for it like a needle in a haystack. And when I did I liked it. But the journey was arduous.

Next up was Wild Mushroom Bi Bim Bop – A Modern Take on a Favorite Korean Rice Dish with Crispy Napa Cabbage Salad, Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, a Soft Boiled Quail Egg, and Sweet Chili Sauce. This dish had a shot. A real shot at being the iconic dish that represented what I had hoped the cuisine would accomplish – a deep understanding of traditional flavors and techniques, refined to the point where the expression of the tradition is pure and unmistakable. The addition of the Mushrooms I thought was in concert with the roots of the dish and felt traditional even though I’d never seen it done this way. The stiff whole grain rice and the Korean Spicy Sauce were what anchored this dish. The thinly sliced musrooms were also a great element. There was a rustic Asian heartiness to this dish. The quail egg was cute, a nod to the traditional raw chicken egg put on top of Bi Bim Bap. And while clearly on path to the dishes I was hoping to eat, it still fell a touch short with the flavors again not being completely integrated (tasted more like disparate elements on the plate). It just felt somewhat jumbled even though most of the right pieces seemed present.

We then got the “Coupage” Beef Platter – Korean style Hanger steak, Braised Shortribs Served with Various European and Asian Dipping Sauces; Bearnaise, Blue Cheese Fondue, Soy Yuzu with Jalapeno, and Crudites. I don’t know fi I’m a fan of the multiple sauces. On the one hand I love the choices. But I also feel better if the chef just picks a direction and goes with it. As it happens, the bearnaise was bland and the blue cheese was uneventful. The soy yuzu however was bright, sharp, and tasty. The dish had big hunks of steak. Nice and red. A touch chewy. The compressed cubes of beef were a textural counterpoint. I tasted one of the onion bits and it was packed/bursting with flavor.

In the home stretch we got the “Coupage” Burger – Fresh House Ground Short Rib Lightly Seasoned and Grilled, with Seared Foie Gras, Red Onion Kimchi, Tomato Confit, and Truffle Perfumed Potato Crisp. Honestly, the burger was insanely good. Super oily in a good way and juicy too. Very very juicy. The savory flavors were rustic ad earthy with all the different meat going into it. The chips were truffley good. They came with chili ketchup, truffle mayo, and dijon mustard. Finally we ate the Shitake Cannelloni with Sunchoke cream, Sweet Chinese Sausage, and Creamed Swiss Chard. This dish had incredible contrasting textures, but honestly the flavors were too subtle in my opinion except for the bits of sausage dotting the landscape.

So we could have left well enough alone and not written about Coupage. Or we could have just written about how Coupage has potential but is inconsistent. Instead I will put forward the following theory: Coupage needs to pick. What is it going to be? Right now it’s a modern American restaurant with French techniques and asian ingredients providing bits of “interest” as they are sprinkled indiscriminately throughout the dishes. The exceptions being the Bi Bim Bap and the the Beef platter a little bit. The other option of course (and my personal preference) would be for them to focus on making an amazing modern korean restaurant serving a wide range of traditional Korean dishes refined to their core essence. Korean food is rich, delicious, savory, and bursting with flavor. We didn’t eat it this time but the Coupage Mac and Cheese, while refined and delicate, it’s flavor can best be described as subtle. Less charitably it would be called bland. Korean food isn’t bland. Korean cuisine can also have a rustic quality to it. Bringing the refinement and restraint of the mac and cheese dish to Korean cuisine could be incredible. But it must be grounded or better yet firmly and eternally rooted deep within the traditional cuisine, or else the result is just shallow.

I know the last thing the folks at Coupage want is my advice. And frankly, I’m not sure they’d be wrong to ignore it. The place looks full relatively often. I’ll close with the following: never mind that Coupage can be inconsistent in terms of presence of flavor, that to me is a function of their lack of focus, or rather the fact that they haven’t made up their mind about what they truly are. What’s important is that they have a vision in their head and deep conviction about their food, not just an idea or a “concept”. On the current path, their concept will have a short shelf life when the Seattle diners who often care more about the trappings of good food than actually eating good food move on to the next cool spot that opens nearby and Coupage is left looking dated. Authenticity is never tired, it’s timeless. And I know it’s selfish of me, but I’m hoping Coupage will turn the corner towards timeless cause it would be so great to have a truly fantastic restaurant that I could walk to.

12 Responses to “Coupage, Seattle, Washington”

  1. stephen says:

    Hey Hillel,

    I have some Korean ancestry and was excited to read a review of coupage in the Seattle Weekly (or stranger?) but I didn’t think much more of it as the review was so-so and I’m way too choosy where I place my dining dollars. Main point being I don’t think I could take my Korean mom to a joint like coupage… KR food is bold, spicy, pickled, etc, and I wouldn’t Mom to be like “what the hell is this $30 piece of kimchi and meat” watered-down experience.

    Kudos on giving them a chance! Check out my blog!

  2. stephen says:

    P.S. Check the levels on your photos, a quick auto-level in photoshop should fix the exposure issues… let me know if you need help!


  3. I’m always a little nervous about fusion. I’ve seen some genius work in that realm, and was generally a fan of at least some of the work of Bombore, which was an innovative restaurant in the Harbor Steps run by a Japanese chef. However, too much “fusion” is jarring for the sake of being jarring, shocking, amusing on a menu, but not really very good food. It’s just really hard to get it right unless you have a truly deep knowledge of the cuisines you are borrowing from.

    Somehow I’m still hopeful that there’s more to Coupage… I haven’t made it in yet, although it’s still on my list. But to be honest, I’d be much happier to see a restaurant try to do a good job at imperial-style multi-course Korean cuisine, along the lines of Pulhyanggi at various locations in Seoul, before we start a market for an army of self-conscious Korean-InsertCuisineHere fusion restaurants. It’s hard enough to find believable Japanese restaurants in Seattle, and passable Korean restaurants are rarer still (Hosoonyi, perhaps).

    My home cooking often involves combining influences from different cuisines, but I spent a fair amount of time trying to get as close as possible to the cuisine of origin before I started combining things… and I suspect my philosophy isn’t the same as that of most trendy fusion chefs. I think a lot about what the ingredients are doing in the dish, and adapt to what I have available, and I’m not concerned about how cute or impressive the juxtaposition sounds.

    If I see a wasabi-sesame-encrusted something-or-other served with “Thai” peanut sauce (note to fusiony chefs: peanut sauce itself is already fusion enough, and not particularly Thai) I’ll probably run, not walk, away.

    On the other hand, I firmly believe that there’s nothing wrong with using a little shaved parmesan in a Japanese ohitashi, for instance, because it fulfills some of the functions that katsuobushi would serve. And I’m very partial to the combination of butter and soy sauce (or butter miso).

    Anyway, I don’t think most chefs in the US train or travel enough to understand one cuisine particularly well, much less combine two or three or four. I’d like to see more interesting fusion restaurants, but the natural fusion that emerges from the availability of novel ingredients in already strong culinary traditions is often far more impressive.

  4. [...] for Brunch posted in Technology, Food | Hillel posted his write-up of Coupage on TastingMenu recently. They were also reviewed by Gourmet this month and has been fairly crowded lately. This [...]

  5. [...] се казва Coupage, Seattle, Washington, по името на ресторанта, и започва ударно, така: I don’t [...]

  6. GreenTeaBlog says:

    “Wild Mushroom Bi Bim Bop – A Modern Take on a Favorite Korean Rice Dish with Crispy Napa Cabbage Salad, Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, a Soft Boiled Quail Egg, and Sweet Chili Sauce”

    This sounds great! How do I get this recipe?

  7. nonchann says:

    My initial reaction upon reading this entry was one of doubt…French and Korean does sounds interesting, but I have never heard of such a combination in fusion cusine. Somehow, my impression is that both cuisines are at opposing polarities. Korean cuisine seems to be stronger in flavors and lack the subtle grace of french cuisine.

    It’s going to be tough to merge both cuisines together and mantain cultural integrity. Who is going to take centre-stage? French-korean is indeed new territory in fusion cuisine. I am not sure if there are any successful French-korean restaurants around as compared to French-japanese/chinese.

  8. Subtle grace would certainly be in evidence in the imperial tradition of cuisine of Korea; however, that’s not the kind of food that makes it abroad. There’s proletarian food, so to speak, everywhere.

    The level of precision and care in Korean restaurants abroad is not, however, that impressive, which might lead to the perception that there’s nothing delicate about the cuisine.

    It doesn’t look to me that Coupage is borrowing from the imperial cuisine that you might experience at a place like Pulhyanggi; it seems to me that Coupage is borrowing ingredients and combinations from Korea and techniques and presentations from France.

  9. Richard Chan says:

    I agree with Jason that true fusion cuisine are hard to come by because very few chefs in US truly understand the fundamental of the food they are trying to “fuse” with, let alone a deeper understanding of the culture and the essensce of the cuisine. The result? A new type of cuisine called “Con-fusion”.

  10. ChloeB says:

    I’ve only been to Coupage once. My husband and I walked there a little over a month ago to check it out. We’d never tried any of the places that came before it but were intrigued by the thought of what might come of Korean ingredients and French preparation. We both love Korean food and I especially love French food.

    One of the starters we’d planned to order that night was sold out, so we ended up with the wild mushroom bi bim bap, beef platter, some of their housemade ice cream and a custard that my husband described as being just the kind of thing I’d love, meaning it was a little offbeat custard served with grapefruit slices.

    I was in the mood for bi bim bap, so I was pretty excited to try their version of it. I liked it more than my husband did. I remember thinking it was “cute” too. I had wished it was a litle more substantial, but I felt the mix of flavors, the crunch of the napa cabbage in contrast to the earthy mushrooms was fine by me. We both liked the beef platter, but stuck almost exlusively to the soy yuzu and blue cheese sauces. The cold cubes of beef tongue were really good. I’d never had it served that way and enjoyed its slightly vinegary pickled flavor. The beef cubes and skimpy pickled carrot sticks were no substitute for kim chee, but I figured they were meant to serve as stand-in. My only problem was that the dish’s proportions were off… One carrot and what seemed like a third pound of beef per person?

    In the end, we’ll almost certainly try them again, if only because I also like having good restaurants near home and am apparently more likely to consider location as a factor than you are. I liked that you wrote about them even though you’ve had inconsistent experiences there. This wasn’t so much the castigation I was afraid it might be so much as it was food for thought… Hopefully, the people at Coupage are reading up!

  11. hillel says:

    I really appreciate all the thoughtful comments that have been made on this post. I agree with most of what’s been said. I will say however, I am personally not interested in “fusion” food. What I am interested in is cuisine with roots that is being refined to its purest and simplest essence by an accomplished team of cooks with a global perspective. Sorry to be so verbose, but that’s the best way I know how to describe what I was hoping for. And I guess I spent this much time eating at, thinking on, and writing about Coupage because I think there’s a chance they could choose that direction. At least I hope they do. We shall see…

  12. mpique says:

    Thanks for the review. My wife and I are going to visit the restaurant very soon. For those of you interested in more traditional Korean food, we’d recommend the following spots (no, not Hosoonyi, I think that place was reviewed favorably by some food writer at Seattle Times in the past but it’s not a place to go for most Korean Americans in town)
    1. Sam-O Jung in Lynnwood across street from Paldo Korean market; serves preserved raw crabs (it’s much better than the description), simple but delicious Kimchi chike (soup)with pork. The owner is from SW Korea where it is said to have the best Korean food and you will taste that in their banchan(side dishes generally served in Korean restaurants)

    2. Soondae Nara in Federal Way; a very tiny place that serves excellent soondae(Korean blood sausage with vermicelli) bo-kum( sauteed with vegetable and rice cakes)

    3. Old Village in Shoreline; the food improved much better after the ownership change last year. Nangmyun(noodle served with cold meat broth and seasoned with vinegar and mustard at table by yourself)is their signature dish. Galbi grilled at table is also decent at the busy place.

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