From the outside Bibimbap looked like any other Asian joint between the grotty end of Oxford Street and the swankier confines of Soho. Bare white walls coupled with scrubbed down wooden tables housed urgent conversations between long-distant friends and dating couples, after work drinks and Koreans slurping kimchi in a homesick manner.
The room was bright, clean and unassuming. The cardboard menus on the table gave the impression of a cheap and cheerful cafe, but the menu's fare was far from standard. Bibimbap is a Korean specialty food. It sounds like the sort of exclamation an absurdly posh man would utter had he found out that there was grouse for dinner. 'I say, Bibimbap!' he would cry in utmost delight. But this menu was completely grouse free, and was as far from a gentrified dining room as someone who can play the kazoo can call themselves a musician.
Unlike other cuisines from Asia, Korean cuisine hasn't quite hit the mass-dining market in the UK. If someone mentions Thai cuisine you think 'hot, sweet, sour, salty', Chinese can be 'sticky, sweet, black bean sour' and even Vietnamese is coming into its own with 'hot, sour and clear flavours'. Korean hits a brick wall for many punters. The only thing I was sure about was that some Koreans use tomato ketchup for flavouring sauces when they're absent from their homeland. And I only know this because I used to go to school with some Koreans who would squirt bottles of the stuff into their rice and vegetables, presumably to achieve the umami-esque flavour of Korea that hadn't quite broken into UK consumer markets.
Bibimbap is usually served as a stone bowl full of white rice with added meats and vegetables. Dolsot Bibimbap is a variation in which the bowl is served painfully hot-it has reached a state where anything that touches it hisses from the heat for a few minutes. Often an egg is cooked on the sides of the bowl, and scrambled into the food. The dishes that arrived at the table were so hot that they warmed my legs through the wooden table.
My two dining companions opted for a variety of Korean flavours. Sam chose one that would cook his beef in the pot, which he exclaimed was 'delicious' whilst Tim decided that Korean seafood would be a safe bet. As soon as his arrived, he pulled out a tiny thing with lots of legs, and began to wish instead that he'd opted for the safer beef. I clearly barked completely up the wrong tree by ordering a dish simply entitled 'nutritious'. I hadn't gone here to be particularly virtuous with my victuals, yet I had been initially determined to have something that was filling, tasty and for once, didn't involve tofu. The tofu, or dubu in Korean, dish that was served next to me looked fantastic.
The hot bowl was so hot that as I pushed my brown rice and vegetables around my bowl with my chopsticks they sizzled aggressively on the side of the plate. I can see this way of cooking becoming a fad, but it did nothing for the quality of the food in my dish. The longer I took to eat my food, the hotter it became and the more overcooked were my vegetables. Clearly, Korean people eat significantly quicker than Westerners. The flavours of my 'nutritious dish' were not amazing. The server brought two squirty bottles circa 1950s burger joint style: instead of mustard and ketchup, we got hot chilli sauce and miso sauce. The hot chilli sauce was not spicy and instead I just seemed to end up with a sticky bowl of brown rice and namul (sautéed vegetables). Sam and Tim's dishes were 'excellent', but as yet, I'm no convert to the 'nutritious' dish at Bibimbap. The flavours didn't change and it felt like a bit of a chore to get to the bottom of the dish. So I gave it to Sam, who ate it, before exclaiming 'Bibimbap! This stuff is frightful'.
Apparently mine didn't quite match up to everyone else's, who claimed to enjoy theirs thoroughly. Walking home through Soho yesterday, I realised that there is a growing selection of busy and profitable Korean restaurants in the capital. On Valentines' Day evening the inside of a lot of these places were steamy and filled with happy, chatting people, waving chopsticks around as they talked excitedly. So I'm sure there is a significant future for Bibimbap and it was a fun and interesting experience to share with friends during an evening out.
But please, don't order the 'nutritious selection'.