SHILLA, in Avondale, is yet another oriental eatery set in a converted former home, albeit this one verges on the palatial.
Shilla proprietor David Lee says, was the ancient name for Korea, his home country.
The Home and Gardens-style
double-storeyed mainly open-plan 1950-ish building clearly once belonged to one of this country’s rich and famous. The restaurant sits among lovely gardens with fountains, waterfalls and a landscaped swimming pool — it would be perfect to eat outdoors on warmer nights than those experienced recently.
Two eastern females and three local couples with a baby in a carrycot were eating when I arrived on Thursday.
The Lees wanted me to go on a Friday or Saturday to imbibe the full ambience on a busy night, but I was pre-booked a fortnight ahead. For dinner, there is a choice of two table d’hote set meals: the six-course Shilla at $2,4 million or Hwarang, one starter, less at $2,2 million.
The Lees — Cherry Lee is the cook — anxious I should sample as much as possible pushed the Shilla choice. It proved an enjoyable gastronomic assault course!
Starters were Ssalssalm: combined prawns, vegetables (broccoli and pumpkin, julienne-thin) in a vegetable and fruit dressing, rolled in rice paper, eaten with chopsticks.
Music wasn’t the moronic plinky-plonky stuff usually heard in any restaurant whose culinary specialties allegedly hail from “the east”, but began with (Occidental) hits of the 60s, then a string quartet followed by an accomplished solo harpsichordist – all at an agreeable level.
Shinsholla, the next starter, was a broth-type dish: on the menu “fancy hot pot with meat balls”. Reality was thinly sliced meat, vegetables, noodles and tofu (bean curd) in Miso, the soup Japanese have for breakfast (not on the cheaper prix-fixe option.)
Eating French salad with chopsticks is time-consuming but I was in no rush. The dish wouldn’t disgrace a Left Bank bistro. Hard to see why it came with what would have been searing hot oriental food, had all condiments been used, but it was a welcome, tasty and successful culinary foil.
“Semi-main” course: sushi, with smoked salmon, prawn and vegetable rolls, was eaten with combined chopsticks and fingers.
Waiters fussily removed various impedimenta from the table, then the linen itself, then a wooden panel, revealing a sunken open sump-like contraption. A small iron brazier of burning charcoal is slotted in; a stainless steel grilled platter brings the table back level, a blown-air device connected.
A waiter (some of the smartest and most knowledgeable in town) braais in front of you: more big luscious prawns if seafood is selected, marinated beef, chicken or the thinly sliced belly pork I chose, with rice, soup and vegetables including mushrooms, leeks and onions.
Another dish contained three types of soya sauce, there were raw green and red chilies and garlic and various other items collectively referred to locally a “hot stuff”.
David told me Korean and Japanese meals don’t include pudding and a piece of Camembert cheese was served, before, with, or after green tea, Royal Court tea, local tea or coffee.
Lunch a la carte menu has starters from $400-$550 000, French salad $500 0000, soups $400-$500 000, main courses $900 0000-$1,3 million and hot drinks $100-$150 000.
Lagers are $180 000, local spirits $100 000, mixers $120-$150 000; local wine $250 000 a glass, imported $400 000. Local “scotch” $200 000; imported whisky $400 000; $500 000 for premium brands, with “special” Scotch (single malts?) $800 000 and $1,5 million a tot. Cognac is $800 000-$1,2 million.
As in most recently opened oriental restaurants there is a private room, mainly used by ministers and diplomats and others who don’t want the hoi-polloi see what they’re up to (or down to!).
I did not like big blow-up pictures of some main courses (a la Wimpy Bars) high on one of the otherwise pristine white walls, nor some Korean flea-market kitsch in and around the WCs, but that’s a cultural thing: the rest is blissful.
* Shilla, 15 Connaught Road, Avondale. Tel 304512, 011 406 694. Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday.