▲ Gallic colors adorn La Coin in Jeju's City Hall entertainment and dining district. Photo by Yoki Photography
Adorned with a proud cockerel and painted blue, red and white, Le Coin is a corner of Jeju with a distinctly French flavor.
Serving up homemade crepes and galettes, all made by a bona fide Frenchman, the place has an exotic air in a City Hall area dominated by chain coffee shops, Korean bbq restaurants and student nightclubs.
Le Coin means corner in French, and owner Nabil Merbah says every French city has a Chinese corner and a Jewish corner: “This is Jeju’s French corner.”
The 40-year-old Lille native says his business philosophy is to make high-quality, yet accessible food, something he says is lacking in his homeland.
“We are losing our know-how. Even finding bread, in the country of bread, you can’t even find a good baguette in France.”
His menu currently includes crepes (3,500-4,000 won), galettes (6,500-8,000 won) — a savory Breton pancake — fruit juices (5,000 won), iced coffee (3,500 won) and sangria (6,000 won). Although he will make some additions in the future, he also wants to keep it simple.
“Maybe one or two galettes, but not too many. Koreans like places to specialize. More than a wide range, they want to try the best on the menu.”
Nabil honed his cooking skills on his 7-year-old son and his style has proved popular across the generations. Pass on a clear summer’s day and the chilled beats of French hip-hop mingle with fashionable Seoulites chatting to Jeju grandmothers at the streetside bar.
▲ Taking a break. Photo by Yoki Photography
“Two people come here, and two there, and most of the time they start talking. It is very rare that people just eat. People start talking to me and eventually to each other, so I like that,” he says.
What attracts the older crowd?
“Maybe it is the buckwheat in the galettes as it is similar to bingtteok, the Jeju pancake. Some of the grandmothers see me make it and say "This is just bingtteok! It is not 6,000 won at the five-day market!’ ”
The galettes, however, are much more than buckwheat and with their ham, cheese and egg fillings they nicely complement the sweeter crepes filled with chocolate, jam, lemon and sugar.
The author’s personal favorite, however, is the iced coffee, the beans for which are soaked overnight to give the beverage a soft, silky taste.
Biting the bullet
Although this is Nabil’s first business venture, he admits he had “chickened out” on opportunities in the past. Then he got a call one morning from his friend, nearby curry house-owner Hyun JuRyoung, to say the corner plot had become available.
“We came the next day and took it,” he says. “It all came together. It was the right time, the right moment, and the right budget,” he says.
▲ It was a tough decision, but it looks to have paid off for the French entrepreneur. Photo by Yoki Photography
Nabil says few regulations make Korea a good place for a startup, and he has plenty more ideas to try out. For now, though, he doesn’t have the energy: “I need to calm down and concentrate on this place.”
Cozy would be an understatement, but the snug premises ooze character inspired by Nabil’s love of music and the arts. The colorful murals within and without complement the modest nods to la Republique: “I am not really a patriot, but I had to do something.”
Nabil is certainly more internationalist than nationalist, having earned his crust doing the night shift in a Swedish sorting office and reading London electricity meters. He is also a skilled linguist, speaking French, Moroccan Arabic, Swedish, English, and Korean.
▲ Photo by Yoki Photography
His Swedish talents won him a scholarship to study in the Scandinavian country, and it was during a holiday to the Czech Republic that he met his Pyoseon-born wife who was living in London at the time. They hit it off, spent a couple of years together and then decided it was time to come home before it was too late. “To raise a family this is the right place to be,” says Nabil.
They came back in 2004 and the changes since then have been drastic. While the rampant development worries him, he welcomes the diversifying population and growing artist community, many of whom can be found at Le Coin’s regular rooftop cultural and music events.
“Now I feel it is getting better. Jeju people had the work mind — they worked and didn’t really play. But now, more and more from the mainland are retiring here or buying a house to get away, and they are bringing some good ideas,” he says.
Nabil would clearly like to play a bit more himself, but he is a man with responsibilities.
“I have to put food on the table... If I work now, then later I can be free.”
In the meantime, you can catch him in the kitchen at le coin français de Jeju.
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