I came to Korea at a time when cell phones were large, TVs were small, and there were no decent Italian restaurants outside of Seoul. News of an Italian restaurant opening in Busan was always accompanied by irrationally, exuberant recommendations passed through the grapevine; exuberant because there were so few available options, and irrational because you just knew it would suck but you went anyway. Then you went again. Those were dark times.
It has gotten much better over the years, as Korean chefs get a better feel for the food, high-quality imported ingredients become more widely available, and a more worldly Korean clientele cultivates a more discriminating palate. Hundreds of restaurants in Busan now serve some sort of pasta dish, and there are more pizza places than PC bangs. But despite boasting several respectable mid-range options, Busan’s high-end Italian food scene is a sparsely populated realm, dominated by a handful of pricey restaurants in the big hotels.
Enter El Olive.
Situated alongside the Suyeong River in Mangmi-dong, El Olive occupies two stylish buildings in an otherwise nondescript neighborhood. The main building–all brick, wood and glass–has a high ceiling, large windows and a central hearth in the main dining room, which opens onto an outdoor patio with tables overlooking the river. A separate dining area lies just next to the main building, in a small greenhouse which is light, airy, and adorned with fresh flowers and potted plants.
The food… OK, I have to pause here, take a deep breath, and resist the urge to get carried away. Excuse me while I count to ten as a precaution against irrational exuberance.
…8…9…10. Now, let’s see: the Rucola pizza was topped with fresh arugula, broad flakes of parmesan cheese, fresh mozzarella and homemade tomato sauce on a thin, doughy crust. Yes, I’m sure that I loved its fresh ingredients and applauded its correct proportions of everything. It struck just the right balance between substance and lightness, and is easily a frontrunner for the best pizza I’ve had anywhere in Korea.
After the pizza came the seafood pasta, with the flying fish roe, sautéed scallops and the big fat prawn. Did I really enjoy the way the scallops melted in my mouth, or were my scampi-deprived synapses playing tricks on me? My one complaint would be that the portion was small, but I didn’t mind that because I knew that as part of Lunch Set C (33,000 won) it was soon to be followed by the tenderloin.
Ah, yes, the tenderloin… soft and juicy, and perched on a thick stalk of blanched asparagus and mashed potatoes made from scratch. Sure, I can say I “liked the hell out of that,” but what does that tell you? How can we be sure that it wasn’t mere irrational exuberance that caused me to rock back and forth gently in my chair?
With the homemade yogurt ice cream that followed, I wanted to be less subjective and more scientific, so I devised an experiment. I measured it on the EMPM scale (Exuberant Moans per Minute), and the data I collected was unequivocal. In layman’s terms, it was “real good”.
My exuberance, rational or otherwise, didn’t keep me from noting a few misses: the assorted fresh seafood stew was bland, and the horseradish dip that accompanies the calamari likewise lacked flavor. I also found that when El Olive is busy, the service too is quite Mediterranean (read: slow) and sometimes suffers from bad timing when you order a la carte (on my last visit our entrees arrived about 20 minutes apart).
In terms of overall quality, however, El Olive offers a bit more bang for your buck than the comparable Italian eateries in the 4-star hotels. The chef, Lee Jae-gil, honed his chops at Apkujeong’s ever-popular Anna Bini, widely regarded as one of the best Italian restaurants in Korea, and he has devised a menu for El Olive that is similarly Italian in spirit, with more of an emphasis on seafood to both reflect and exploit Busan’s maritime location.
The lunch sets (spaghetti, fish, chicken, tenderloin) are priced from 19,000 to 33,000 won, and the dinner sets (fish, steak, lamb, lobster) from 52,000 to 79,000. If you prefer to mix and match, they offer a range of interesting appetizers and salads from 13,000 to 20,000 won, a variety of pastas, ranging from the modest Aglio Oglio (13,000) to the ambitious Spaghetti with beef tenderloin in gorgonzola cream sauce (29,000), and dish up several pizzas (Margherita, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto) priced from 14,000 to 22,000 won.
The main courses will keep me coming back for further “research” this summer: grilled rack of lamb with asparagus, pan-fried whole halibut in saffron sauce, and beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes and red wine sauce, to name a few that caught my eye.
In the warm weather, the outdoor deck will be open, affording diners a view of the river and the Costco caravans returning home with their trunks loaded with pesto sauce and frozen ravioli. Funny, the things people get excited about.
El Olive is open for lunch every day from 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and dinner from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Call 051-752-7300 for reservations (strongly recommended).
El Olive is in Mangmi-dong, on the riverside road roughly halfway between the Jwa-suyoung Bridge (the one with the large circular arch) and Costco, directly across the river from The Sharp Apartments. There is ample parking in the back. If you take a taxi, nearby landmarks to direct your driver are Costco and Hyupseong Renaissance Apartments.