Places To Eat In London: Koba, Fitzrovia
Apparently one of the big food trends in London in 2015, carried over from last year a little is going to be Korean food. I’ve been a massive fan of all things Korean and edible, but particularly Korean Barbecue since I stumbled across Soot Bull Jeep, an unassuming Korean barbecue joint in Koreatown, Los Angeles (which doubles as one of my favourite restaurants in the world) in November 2012. I’ve been yet to try Korean barbecue in London, afraid I’d be disappointed, for quite some time, but last week looking for somewhere to dine out near Sherin‘s workplace (I still can’t seem to get a table at Honey & Co.) we landed at Koba, one of London’s better known Korean barbecue joints so I could give her her first experience of Korean food.
Well, on the one hand I was right. Our experience at Koba paled in comparison to Soot Bull Jeep, but then again they do say the only two places in the world to get really good and authentic Korean barbecue are Korea and Los Angeles. And besides, food will never taste as good cooked tabletop over gas than true honest to good wood and coals. However, we did have a simply lovely meal. I still want to look for a back streets, truly authentic Korean barbecue experience in the capital, but Koba provides a great entry level to see if you like the flavours and to get used to the style of eating and serving. When we first walked into Soot Bull Jeep we were bewildered about the table top cooking, and how you were supposed to eat the meat with all the little unknown dishes littering the tabletop. At Koba everything is explained for you, they do the cooking for you and you can ask whatever questions you want. I’d call it a fantastic, entry level Korean barbecue experience.
I’m actually doing dry January. Not for any particular resolution reason, but because I think a break does me good now and again, especially after December! (And besides, if I cut out alcohol, I don’t need to cut out on munching my Hotel Chocolate reindeer giant slab!) As a result, I ended up sipping a ‘Plum Punch’ from the non-alcoholic section of the menu. It was surprisingly lovely, with pieces of plum at the bottom and sweetened with honey. I was just slightly unsure of why it was garnished with pine nuts, however. Enjoyable if you want something other than water to go with your meal an you’re not drinking, though in my mind Flesh and Buns still have the monopoly on the very best Asian-inspired non-alcoholic drinks in the city.
Shall we start with the starters? The upside to Koba being a bit lighter than your regular Korean barbecue experience in how much food arrives at your table (more on that in a bit), is that you can actually manage to sample a three course meal. While they are meant for sharing we each wanted our own, so I went for the Soft Shell Crab Salad. The crab was done in tempura breadcrumbs which was a shame, because except for a larger piece of crab with a lot of the brown meat still intact, all you could taste was the coating rather than the shellfish. (For a truly fantastic soft shell crab experience, can I push you towards the soft shell crab burger at Shrimpy’s in King’s Cross?) However, the salad the crab sat on top of was fantastic; light and full of flavour and crunch from some fresh Asian vegetables, the pieces you got to first were coated in a light and zingy dressing, as you worked your way down to the pool of super spicy Korean chilli sauce at the bottom. My advice is when it comes to starters go for one of their salads, just not this one.
Sherin opted for the gyoza dumplings. I think they were stuffed with mostly vegetable, but there could have been some prawn in there too. They were good, sound dumplings with nice flavour and a fantastic dipping sauce, though they did not even come near to touching my favourites at Tamago in Canterbury. Still a solid menu choice, though, and a great dish for sharing if there are a lot of you around a table.
In the barbecue department, as you may have figured out by now, raw marinated meat is brought to the table and cooked in front of you on the burner in the middle of the table. In some of the more traditional and family style restaurants you’re expected to do the cooking yourself, but at Koba your server is on hand so you don’t need to do anything other than assemble your bites and eat!
Typically bites of Korean Barbecue meat are wrapped in large lettuce leaves along with various condiments, before being dipped in the provided sauce and eaten. At some of the more traditional joints there are so many of these little plates full of various pickles, kimchee, sauces and sometimes raw garlic cloves for you to roast on the burner in front of you before adding to your bite. While these are traditionally an accepted included part of the cost of the meat (where at a traditional restaurant you get more than you think you could ever possibly eat!), this being London only the dipping sauce and soy bean paste came with our meat; the (delicious) marinated and shredded spring onions and lettuce leaves were an additional extra. You could also order kimchee and additional pickles, but they came as such a big selection it would have been only worth ordering them for a whole table; I missed the distinct lack of kimchee in my wraps.
Usually my Korean barbecue favourites are pork and beef, so I went for the basic Kogi beef. it was great and first and full of flavour, but I think cooking different meats on the same gas burner is an error; it had dried out and was not as enjoyable to eat at the end of the course. This is something that would not happen if a traditional fire grill had been used with different heat points! Sherin’s chicken however, was sweet, succulent and made the most wonderful bites. Her chicken was true Korean barbecue as I know it from Koreatown, and I’d recommend that you make it your star meat in your meal at Koba.
I think our desserts were the highlight of the meal for both of us. I fall head over heels whenever I see Green Tea/ Matcha Ice Cream on a menu, and my scoop was deliciously creamy and more-ish. Bonus points for the topping of traditional sweet red beans (something I never used to like but I have totally come around to) – I just wish that there had been more of them. I only stole a lovely and chocolatey bite of Sherin’s runny in the middle chocolate fondant, but I assume that both it and its scoop of vanilla ice cream were as well received as my ice cream, as the whole lot was hoovered up within minutes.
I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve had Korean barbecue anywhere in the world before, but especially if you have a favourite joint in London you really think that I should check out that has not been as Westernised as Koba. And for those of you who have dined at Koba, what did you order and what did you think of it? I’m curious about their Bibimbap, as lots of the Asian patrons (always a good measure of how good an Asian restaurant is!) were ordering them, and they are another favourite of mine.