I was the kind of child who didn’t leave cookies for Santa because I knew he didn’t deserve them as much as I did. No, at Christmastime all the sugary stuff belonged to me. I still expect to be fully loaded on carbs and quadruple-layer cake by the time the new year rolls in. So this year, before that could come to fruition, I knew I needed to scope out some places with the finest and most exquisite desserts in Seoul, desserts so magnificent that even Santa would need a reservation in advance. Fortunately for me, there are five yummy joints that fit the bill just perfectly, so friends, let’s get ready to get fat together.
Hackney CafÈ: Elegance incarnate
My first stop in the search for Christmas delights brought me to the twisty walkways of Yongsan’s Haebangchon area, otherwise known as HBC. Passing by those numerous expat hubs, Bonny’s Pizza and Jacoby’s Burgers among them, I eventually saw Hackney. It’s easy to access but not so easy to spot, and it looks like the Korova Milk Bar from “A Clockwork Orange”: small but deluxe, giving off the same intimidating vibe as a fabulously well-dressed man in a suit. Anyone who labels himself an “interior aficionado” will love the retro vibe.
But I was there for the Banana Black cake. As I settled into the café’s hidden parlor, twiddling my thumbs in anticipation with only a few vague sources of ambient light as my confidantes, the idea of that cake consumed me, and with good right: The first bite held all the luxury provided by a chocolatier in Paris. The dark, fudge-like frosting, mousse and bananas were a triumph, and after I scarfed it down I fell over myself in praise for the staff. Their response, as one could only expect in this sleek atmosphere, was a curt nod, a polite “thank you” and a smile befitting a Renaissance painting.
By92: Worth getting lost for
If Hackney is hard to find, By92 is nearly impossible: It felt like Chutes and Ladders, except without the game board. After a few steep hills and a lot of “GPSing,” I found it tucked away in the corner of a damp residential street in Gyeongnidan and approached it anticipating my date with a renowned green tea cake, a petite little thing with strong matcha flavors.
After I was greeted warmly — with an echo of curiosity from the kindly couple who run this establishment, and more than a little surprise that I’d managed to stumble upon their hidden little paradise — I took up an exquisitely bitter coffee in my left hand and a fork in my right, and set out to be wowed.
The matcha flavor was no joke. It was like green tea with the strength of Mount Fuji. Paired with some green tea ice cream I thought it went down pretty well, but that was until I tried their recommended item: a glistening apricot tart surrounded by delicate edible pearls. My first instinct was to stare at it, but after I dug in I knew I’d found my true happy place: the green tea cake was good, but THIS was what I call a Christmas dessert. The apricot sweetly balanced a creamy layer underneath and a gingerbread crust. With its soft, fresh-out-of-the-oven texture, it was exactly what I imagined Santa’s elves would all enjoy on their breaks. Splendid.
Vert et Blanc: Fancy French glitz
In the trendy, upscale area of Sangsu lies an establishment that’s one part flower-arranging school and two parts class act café: Vert et Blanc. The terrace is landlocked inside an elegant garden and the staff treats you like a VIP, but the reason I sought this place out was because of their famed grape tart. Was that weird — a grape tart? Friends generally greeted the idea with disdain, but I was game: I like grapes, and I like tarts. Seemed exciting.
As I waited for it I let the romantic aura of the café wash over me: The vases at each table glinted with soft lighting, couples gazed at each other over coffee and Tchaikovsky played over the loudspeaker. When my green grape tart arrived it was every bit as beautiful as I’d hoped, both tasty and unique. Out of all the lovely treats and desserts with which I’d tantalized my palette, this green grape tart outshone them all. I’ll be back to Vert et Blanc again (if only to pretend I’m a princess in 18th-century France).
Suave: Caramels and macaroons galore
After such a dainty affair I was in need of candies, caramels and sweets — stocking stuffers, essentially — and the Internet had pointed me in the direction of Suave, a bakery with a penchant for caramel-making and macaroons. Not quite peppermint and licorice, but then again, were Christmas candies ever meant to follow tradition?
Its reputation exceeded its location. Nestled between a little-known boutique called #1 and a series of alleyways in Hapjeong’s most affluent area, Suave’s exterior was a little blah, the inside teeny tiny.
But the caramels were dazzling. I settled on chocolate and raspberry caramels to start, and was immediately amazed — with a much dewier consistency than the caramels I’d tried in the past, the flavors melted quickly against my palate and gave my taste buds a run for their money. Then I went for the macaroons, and each day from that moment has been filled with dreams of them; they were that good. This unassuming place blew my mind.
Hôtel Douce: Canelés on cloud nine
Nestled in a back alley of Seoul’s Seorae Village, Hôtel Douce sharply contrasts with its neighbors; Hangeul and the smell of fried chicken may lurk at its sides, but Hôtel Douce is a quaint and charming little bakery, highlighted by a neon fuchsia sign, a bright rococo interior and the kind of mysterious aura most people only see in the movies.
I was greeted by a lone pâtissier with a chef’s hat bound tightly to her head and only two pairs of tables and chairs; tight-lipped, I glanced around and wondered at the kind of delectable treasures this kind of exclusivity must denote. Then I tasted a canelé — a tender custardy cake with a caramelized crust — and let the deep taste of burnt marshmallow ring in memories of warm, campfire cuddling. It had a perfectly consistent crust, just enough glaze and a spongy, soft texture bursting with rich flavor. The experience left me feeling like I’d just visited a kindly old grandmother’s cabin in the woods.
And with that, I left feeling quite satisfied. I thanked the pâtissier for working this late on a Thursday night, at the edge of closing time, and strolled out with my elegant to-go box wrapped to perfection. I was grinning from ear to ear.