Loisir: Afternoon Tea in Hannam-dong

Afternoon tea at Loisir, in Hannam-dong, Seoul.

“There are those who love to get dirty and fix things. They drink coffee at dawn, beer after work. And those who stay clean, just appreciate things. At breakfast they have milk and juice at night. There are those who do both, they drink tea.” — Gary Snyder

Afternoon tea at Loisir, in Hannam-dong, Seoul.Afternoon tea at Loisir, in Hannam-dong, Seoul.Afternoon tea at Loisir, in Hannam-dong, Seoul.

I fear I fall into the first camp, at least when it comes to beverage of choice. And when B and I sat down for afternoon tea at Loisir (“Loser??” said B, upon seeing the neon sign out front, soft-pink in the afternoon sunlight) , we very nearly ordered coffee on instinct. At Loisir, you have the option between the two.

But it was afternoon tea, and while I tend to only really drink tea in either the American or Korean way (that is, hot and with honey when I’m sick or iced and with lemon, or some version of green and out of tiny cups), I thought we’d better go British. A quick look over the three-page list of tea varieties offered at the cafe, in comparison to the tiny box at the bottom of one page of the menu for coffee, supported this instinct.

Afternoon tea at Loisir, in Hannam-dong, Seoul.Afternoon tea at Loisir, in Hannam-dong, Seoul.Afternoon tea at Loisir, in Hannam-dong, Seoul.

Americans have a lot of funny ideas about the British and their tea, and I was amused to find, on my first few trips over there, that the stereotype is legit — just not in the way Americans imagine it, not among my friends anyway. They are the builder’s tea type, the type that would actually fall into the first category in the quote above, or maybe the third, had Gary Snyder been English. The English version of the second category would be the afternoon tea-goers. I don’t know any of them in real life.

So basically what I’m trying to say is, I don’t know squat about afternoon tea, other than it is a recent trend here in Korea, probably due at least in part to its Instagramability. It’s a strategy that seems to be working well for Loisir, which is tucked in along a backstreet, away from any major foot traffic. If you want to have afternoon tea at Loisir, you have to make a reservation, and when we arrived promptly when the doors open, at 11:50, nearly every table was already marked a with a “reserved” sign.

While the Instagram factor may be working in Loisir’s favor, it isn’t the main driving force behind the afternoon tea set. Owner-Head chef Kim Sukyeong says she started the cafe specifically to serve afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea at Loisir, in Hannam-dong, Seoul.

The tea was mostly Twinings, with a few Dilmah and Whittard options. Standard-issue tea-type stuff. You can get everything either hot or iced, with the exception of the sparkling teas, which the menu says they carbonate (and I’m guessing sweeten) themselves. I lingered over the Chai but in the end decided it would probably not be very good Chai, so we went for Moroccan Mint with Rose green tea and Nutty Chocolate Assam.

I expected to like the black tea better, because I generally do, but the green tea was by far my favorite. I don’t think B, who one-shotted his first cup of each, cared much either way. By that point, he was beginning to realize that while the pictures of the food may have resembled the unforgettable (and cheap) breakfasts we had in Germany, the substance was going to be quite different, and he was settling into a bit of sulk.

I think the basic concept of afternoon tea was achieved quite well by the set we were served, but there were little quirks that stood out as well. While the cheese was of the bog-standard, plastic-wrapped variety, the bread was remarkably high-quality. The “bruschetta” was just actually nothing of the sort, but was B’s favorite item. The “madeleines” that came with the set were some kind of teeny, tiny loaf, cut in half (although I have seen photos that prove that Loisir do have at least one proper madeleine pan).

The scones were miniature, which made cutting them in half without crumbling them near impossible, never mind that the butter that replaced the clotted cream was cold, which means that by the time I’d finished attempting to spread the first one, I was left with clumps of cold butter and scone doused in strawberry jam. Tasted alright though, once I managed to shovel it up with a fork. The other one, which I opted to eat dry given the previous fiasco, was just…. well, dry.

I would think combining the mini scones into two or three decently sized scones might be a better option, especially given how dried out scones can get if they have too much surface area. B went from sulking to flat-out angry at that point, saying he’d had far better scones in our kitchen for free. But then again, B doesn’t know how much I pay for quality butter, and how much quality butter I put into my scones.

The fudge-like cream in the macarons was chilled and therefore chewy. Not ideal, texture-wise, but again, the flavor was fine. The cream-puff cream was thick and sticky — basically I just had issues with texture all around — except for the creme brulee, which was the one thing I went in thinking probably wouldn’t be very good. It was lovely — a nice solid crack that gave way to a lovely, light interior.

It was all just really sweet. By the time we got down to the end, we were struggling. I’ve seen photos of high tea in England — I know that the portions of dessert that were served up were proper. I just don’t know how anyone does it. Poor B, in the cab on the way home, said, “I thought I had adjusted to Western food because of your cooking, but I obviously haven’t. Do I look pale?” I told him he got off easy with me — I usually cut the amount of sugar called for in a recipe down to nearly half in everything I bake. I couldn’t prepare him for this. I wasn’t prepared for this.

Essentially this one comes down to the proximity factor and what you’re looking to get out of the experience. Would I ever, ever pay 52,000 won (about $50 US) for this back in the US? No. I also wouldn’t pay 52,000 won to have it again. But given where we are and how much a cup of loose-leaf foreign tea costs (never mind two pots of it) and the standard prices charged here for items of similar quality to those included in the set, it wasn’t too bad. If you’re looking for a pleasant atmosphere, a few good photographs, or something cute to do with a date, I’d say it’s not a bad option. If you’re a purist of basically any kind, avoid at all costs — it will only make you angry. I’m not a purist, so I enjoyed myself despite my little criticisms.

(The truth is, I still don’t have this “review” mentality quite down yet — I want to give people a realistic view of what they’re walking into, but I’m not one to pan a place — or an experience — just because it isn’t perfect. But the fact is, some people don’t have 26,000 won a head to just toss toward a mediocre half-meal, no matter how pretty it is. I understand that.)

Given that I’m an old married person with whatever the opposite of a sweet tooth is, I don’t think I’ll be back for tea. Wouldn’t mind giving their coffee a try sometime, maybe on a weekday, before the hordes of Instagramming fashion bloggers arrive. The interior was done by a group called Nordic Bros. Design Community and is quite lovely. The gables that are mirrored both on the exterior and interior are supposed to evoke the arcades of Paris, while also representing the building’s former life as a family home, while the little copper details throughout that kept causing reflections of B’s pale, zoned-out face to pop up in my photos, to humorous effect, are supposed to reference Narcissus, which makes the photos that much funnier. They have a nice, second-floor outdoor space, as well.

(That bit of French there is, I believe, a jumbled-up paraphrase of a Voltaire quote, the basic gist of which is, “Paradise is where I am.” I don’t know — I don’t speak French, but if that’s right, I suppose the sentiment applies.)

서울특별시 용산구 한남동 745-2
745-2 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul

Monday-Sunday 12pm-11pm

Afternoon Tea: 27,000 won for one; 52,000 won for two
Call 02-749-1128 to make a reservation (required for afternoon tea).