Vegetarian London: Jinjuu Restaurant Review
In this series, we review restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle. While some restaurants will be specifically vegetarian, others will be mainstream. We’ll be tasting everything from veggie burgers, to posh meat-free menus. Along the way, we’ll try to find out, as far as possible, whether chicken stock, cheese made from animal rennet, gelatine, fish sauce and so on are not lurking in the supposedly vegetarian dishes.
Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
Jinjuu is a hoot. There’s much that we liked about this contemporary Korean newcomer, from the vibe of the place to the vibrancy of its food. Tucked away in the now pedestrianised Kingly Street, it opened just a couple of months ago. The cool, atmospheric venue is split over two floors: a bar with stools, benches and restaurant-style seating at the ground level, and a restaurant with open-view kitchen in the basement. Both rock a hip, grungy look that references America’s street food trucks, the usual bare-brick-walls-and-exposed-piping shtick given a twist with bright graffiti art and moody lighting.
Jinjuu – which means ‘pearl’ (a delicate, old-fashioned word at odds with its hip urban surroundings) is co-owned by Korean-American Judy Joo, who has several sparkly culinary feathers to her name dipped in celebrity gold dust. She’s a regular face on the Cooking Channel USA, Food Network USA and UK, the only female Iron Chef UK, and also a judge on that programme. A former recipe developer for Saveur food magazine, she’s worked at the Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and, more recently, as executive chef at the Playboy Club London. In the kitchen here, however, is British-born head chef Andrew Hales whom Joo worked with at the Playboy Club. He’s put his French fine dining background to one side, as the cooking is centred on American interpretations of Korean street food classics… and Korean interpretations of American ‘dirty food’. It’s the sort of rough-and-ready, big flavoured grub that’s been popularised by Korean-American street vendors from Los Angeles to New York — though the veggie options are more saintly than guilt-inducing (more’s the pity).
Drinks are a strong point, so arrive early to try the imaginative Korean-influenced cocktails, soju (vodka-like Korean spirit) innovatively infused with a few different flavours, and Asian beers. Korean bloody mary, made from kimchi paste (without fish), celery and black pepper-infused soju and Korean chilli flakes will kick your appetite into shape with its loud, look-at-me chilli hit and gorgeously savoury layered flavours. (Beware the cute little cone of shrimp chips attached to it though). Vegetarian anju — small dishes consumed with alcohol — consist of just edamame beans and a couple of salads. Then there are tacos, dumplings, stir-fried sweet potato noodles with vegetables and eggs, bibimbap (stone rice bowl with vegetables, eggs and crispy marinated tofu), a barbecue sharing platter, and half a dozen salads and side vegetables. Marked with a ‘V’, none of these, we’re told, contain fish sauce. However, there’s no exciting meat-free equivalent to their signature dishes of sliders, prawn pops and fried chicken.
Prepare to get your hands dirty (though we squeamishly opted for cutlery) for small, soft tacos heaped with miso-spiked portobello mushrooms, tiny black beans, buttery avocado slices and curls of kale — given a sharp kick by an overload of sour cream (hence the cutlery). The miso that the mushrooms are cooked in is barely discernible, and the tacos are more straightforwardly Mexican-influenced than Korean-tasting. We like their fresh, verdant taste but they’re the mellowest, most low-key of all the dishes. More typical of the strident flavours to follow is a lively dipping sauce made from soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, chilli and garlic. A LOT of garlic. It comes with substantial yet light mandoo dumplings stuffed with vegetables, tofu and sweet potato noodles.
The deliciously pungent, garlicky sauce turns up in another guise with ssam: a barbecue-style sharing platter (though the veggie version is made up of fried rather than grilled elements). There’s a lot on the plate, ready to be assembled: fried cubes of crispy marinated tofu, sliced courgettes and aubergines fried in thin tempura-like batter, spring onions, crunchy lotus root crisps, plain steamed rice, squares of toasted nori seaweed, refreshing radish kimchi and spicy ssamjang (bright red fermented soy bean paste with chilli). All this comes with a large plate of sprightly lettuce leaves, and the idea is to wrap all the bits and pieces into the leaves, top with kimchi and the sauces and roll them up. It’s a fun, sociable way of eating, though no instructions are given either on the menu or by staff so you’ll have to work it out as you go along. Sweet and helpful though they are, the waiting staff would benefit from more training: some are clueless about the dishes and ingredients.
Something of a surprise is the sophisticated textural extravaganza that’s the creamy, tangy yuja parfait made from yuzu citrus fruit (‘yuja’ in Korean). A slick of passion fruit curd, crunchy with its seeds, is topped with yuja drizzle cake, a sphere of nokcha (Korean green tea) sugar, a scoop of yuja-flavoured frozen yoghurt, and black and white sesame brittle. It's delicious; don't miss it. We paid around £40-£45 each for a 3-course dinner with a couple of cocktails, a glass of wine and service – reasonable for a centrally located venue.
There are a lot of big, bold flavours at Jinjuu, and thankfully nothing is toned down for timid palates, but the cooking needs fine-tuning. It doesn’t have to be refined — it is street food after all — but more attention is needed, though we do like its edginess, confidence and generosity. The booking system, though efficient, is a bit of a headache: tables are not easy to come by, and only one was available in the time slot that we wanted for the entire month, yet there were a number of empty ones on our visit. We suspect some are especially reserved for walk-ins — perhaps the footballers and soap stars who’ve been reportedly flocking to the place. The bar and restaurant are open late, making them a rare good-quality Soho pit stop for after-hours sipping and snacking.
Jinjuu, 15 Kingly Street, W1B 5PS. Tel: 020 8181 8887
We review strictly anonymously, and pay for all the food, drink and service. Images supplied by the restaurant.
Last Updated 19 March 2015