Job interviews have the great advantage of presenting opportunities to try something new, not just on the career front, but when you decide to find something to eat afterwards. After a traipse through the same streets that Leonard Rossiter's Reggie Perrin felt imprisoned in like Hamlet in Denmark, I spied Sorabol on New Malden High Street, the Korea town of London. Since it's not every day you get three interviews in a week, I decided to do something special and treat myself.
A small family run restaurant with framed posters showing Korea in all its glory, it was quiet at the time I arrived and I was the only Englishman there, but it was a real insight into the Korean way of food. The tables even had small gas burners in them, where you cook your slivers of meat at the table before administering the sauce. Looking at these made me muse on the social nature of eating, which many Britons seem to have lost. We now seem to eat solipsistic and solitary meals on the hoof. Here, it seems that Koreans in London still eat as a social activity, which made a stark contrast to two contemporary societies social mores. Although I was alone, I could see the stark contrast, which even shows in the service.
The proprietor accidentally spilled my drink on the table, which was cleaned up promptly. I apologised in the most English way possible, even though it was her fault. As soon as something went wrong, she did all she could to rectify it. You never get this when you're staffed by locals, who sometimes mistake service for servitude. Even the service was as exceptional as the food, the former even included a pointer to the station when I needed it (try it in a greasy spoon).
The Japche Deop Bap was served with a miso soup; its taste suggested something fermented, which took me back to my drinking days. It reminded me of some of the beers I loved drinking, even though you could never get drunk on it. If you've never had Korean food, it's nothing like Chinese. Get that out of your head, it's more subtle than that. You could mistake it for Chinese, but you'll learn that you don't get There are spices, but it's not hot like the curries aimed at the more macho, drunk and stupid after the pubs close. The Japche Deop Bap was served with a small mound of rice and quite tastefully presented with great attention to detail. The portions were not big, but the dumplings were filled with chicken and were, like everything else, packed with flavour. The rice was plain, but it acted as a perfect foil to everything else. If that tasted of ordinary rice, it could be dipped in the other fermented product of East Asia, soy sauce.
As soon as the final job interview of the week ended, it was lunch time. Still hankering after something with eastern promise, I decided to have lunch with an angel, which in Japanese is "tenshi", at The Angel, Islington. Amidst the exhaust fumes and the chaos amidst the city, there is a part of London that is forever Mount Fuji. One bite of your bento, it transports you there. Better that than a mouthful of bitumen.
A cute waitress called Tomomi served my Tenshi Bento in this elegant lacquered box, which segregated the salmon & avocado sushi rolls, chicken, shredded cabbage (which was neither fermented or pickled, just so you don't confuse Japanese and Korean) and the Japanese language's most famous Portuguese loanword, Tempura. There was more spice in comparison to Japche Deop Bap, with the pickled ginger and the wasabi, but it was served in small portions and the Confucian idea of restraint was exhibited in both dishes. The portions of each were small, but big on taste, which you shall skimp on at your peril.
What wasn't skimped on was the standard of service. When I asked her for a fork and spoon (for the miso soup), she obliged her gaijin guest with a smile. Like at Sorabol, she was prompt and efficient. Even I had to hand her the bottle of soy sauce when I left, as she busily bustled around the customers (well, it pays to reciprocate after a good meal). I wouldn't blame her for a momentary lapse when demand on her services was high.
Tenshi's décor was not kawaii but a restrained mix of Japanese film posters and pages from film magazines, with a few scenes of feudal Japanese life. The only kawaii scene I saw was a cute kitty in a feudal scene, but it shows what lies beyond these clichés of Japan.
Beyond providing good food, these eateries are an excellent window into another culture and their mores, whether it's Korea's affirmation of eating as a familial experience or Japan's ethos of continual refinement in everything, which really put our own crudity and solipsism into perspective. We eat our meals in solitude, often as if we were the only people in the world, which narrows our horizons and breaks down social ties we depend on. I accept I'm guilty of this too, but it begs the question: What would happen, or rather, what would we say if they ate like us?
Sorabol 180 High Street
Phone: (0208) 942-2334