A series reviewing restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle.
It's taken a while for London to fully embrace Korean food, but it's now a full-blown affair. Suddenly we can’t get enough of barbecued bulgogi, jap chae noodles and pa jeon pancakes. And where would a hipster meal be without kimchi slapped onto anything and everything?
Opened in November 2013, this smaller Charlotte Street branch of the original Soho eatery specialises in one of Korea’s most iconic dishes. Bibimbap is, literally, a one-pot meal. Korean comfort food at its best, ‘dolsot bibimbap’ is served in a sizzling hot ‘dolsot’, a stone pot that looks like a chunky mortar without a pestle. There are many variations of the dish, including ones served in ordinary bowls instead of a ‘dolsot’, but it’s the latter that is special.
The insides of the bowl are coated with toasted sesame oil, into which white sticky rice is gently pressed, creating a crust all around. In classic vegetarian bibimbap, vegetables in contrasting colours are arranged like spokes of a wheel on top, with a raw egg often placed in the centre. The dish is nutritionally balanced, with plenty of aesthetic appeal. Doenjang (fermented soya bean paste) and gochujang (similar, but with ground rice and chilli added) are served alongside. You drizzle the sauces on top, then mix everything up thoroughly before digging in – hence the name ‘bibimbap’ which translates as ‘mixed rice’. The egg cooks amid the hot ingredients.
Bibimbap is said to have originated from the Korean tradition of incorporating different foods in the same bowl during ancestors’ memorial ceremonies. It became a popular dish in the royal courts; and today many Koreans make it from leftover rice. It’s a lot of fun to eat, and you need not even use chopsticks. No wonder readers of a 2011 CNN Travel poll voted it number 40 in a list of ‘world’s 50 best foods’, ahead of hamburgers.
Here, vegetarians are spoilt for choice with five varieties of bibimbap (on a menu that also includes plenty for omnivores). Five! Most Korean restaurants serve only one meat-free version, if at all. Choose from classic, kimchi, tofu, mixed mushrooms and ‘nutritious’ – made from brown rice, ginseng, gingko, dates and chestnuts.
Our first impressions of the restaurant were not good, however. The small, unassuming entrance is easy to walk by in a street crammed on both sides with eateries. Inside, it’s a narrow, three-room, no-frills space with wooden chairs; the otherwise bare walls are lined with posters of Korean celebrities. Tables are so close together that you can readily hear other diners talking.
Unsmiling staff pointed to a table in the tiny first room, but we chose one in the more comfortable area at the back, past a payment counter facing high chairs. Barley tea is given for free in many Korean restaurants; but when we asked for it here, the waiter grumpily pointed at the tea section on the menu where it’s not listed, implying we shouldn’t go off-menu.
Food arrived quickly and all at the same time because there are no starters, only side dishes. Kimchi pancake, cut into squares and served with shredded lettuce, was bland and had no discernible kimchi taste, but its soya dipping sauce was tasty. And despite clearly stating we were vegetarian at the time of ordering, beef bibimbap was brought to us. (Later we heard a few other diners complaining of their orders getting mixed up.) It was removed swiftly, but without apology.
The classic vegetarian bibimbap – which is also the restaurant’s logo – was packed with mushrooms, carrots, beansprouts, spinach, daikon and cucumber, with a fried egg on top. For an additional 70p, you can opt for brown rice. Mild, sweet sauces, referred to simply as ‘chilli’ and ‘miso’ here, come in squeezy plastic ketchup and mustard bottles.
We would have liked more of a sesame oil sizzle and crispy bits of rice at the bottom, but otherwise the dish was flavoursome and well-executed. Attractively presented in a ‘dolsot’, it was packed with fresh flavours from the vegetables, the crunch of beansprouts and the slippery earthiness of shiitake. Soju (Korean spirit made from grains or potatoes) was the perfect liquid accompaniment. Other veggie options on the menu include dumplings, noodles, a tofu dish and 'rice cakes'.
BiBimBap does its signature dish very well, and is a good pit stop for a quick, cheap and hearty meal. It’s a place to meet friends after work before moving on elsewhere, and not really somewhere to linger – even though the staff had become much friendlier and were even smiling by the end.
BiBimBap Charlotte Street, 10 Charlotte Street, W1T 2LT. Tel: 020 7323 6890.
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