Places To Eat In London: SuperStar Korean Barbecue, Fitzrovia
As many of you may already know, my favourite food is Korean food, and probably my favourite and best food experience/ meal I’ve ever had was my first taste of Korean food and Korean barbecue when I stumbled into Soot Bull Jeep in Los Angeles’ Koreatown (I say stumbled because at the time we had no idea it was one of L.A.’s most celebrated barbecue joints!) So, obviously, when the team at SuperStar Korean Barbecue on the border of Covent Garden and Fitzrovia (you know, one of those big glass restaurants by Tottenham Court Road and the Google offices, it used to be Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks?) got in touch to see if I wanted to stop by for dinner, I jumped at the chance to continue my mission to find a go-to barbecue joint in the city.
To start we had glasses of plum wine and soju, a light, Korean spirit that is basically their national drink. I had a peach flavoured number, and I’ve got to warn you, while it is lighter than most spirits you’re used to drinking straight, it goes down very easily! They do a mixed shots option on the menu which is a good way to get used to it and flavoured versions if you’re a first timer at soju drinking! Some of the shops in Chinatown sell it and is a short walk away, so go grab a bottle or two afterwards if you develop a taste for it.
The last time I reviewed a Korean barbecue restaurant in London I was disappointed at the lack of proper barbecue grills in lieu of gas, as it had a big impact on the flavour. Reading Koreatown recently I’ve discovered that this is a big problem, with health and safety officers banning them in certain cities. However, while you did not get open flames at SuperStar, their tabletop burners were excellent and still managed to deliver that heat and crispy bits on the meat that is so hard to get over gas. For those of you new to Korean barbecue, marinated meats and vegetables are ordered and brought to the table for you to cook yourself to your liking in the middle of the table, communal style, before they’re wrapped in pieces of lettuce with rice (it is not a meal in Korea if there is not rice on the table) and other assorted pickles, then sometimes dipped in sauces before being scooped up into your mouth. It is utterly delicious, and one of my favourite ways to eat. We had the classic marinated beef and pork, the two most common options (in Korean barbecue in general, and at the tables around us) and they were both excellent; succulent, and full of flavour. Order these as your basic starter meal for two.
By way of banchan (the small, assorted plates of vegetables, pickles, ferments and sauces that traditionally come with Korean barbecue) two dipping sauces came with our meat order, and we then ordered the ubiquitous lettuce wraps which came with some great miso and classic Chinese cabbage kimchee (wonderful flavour here too). Now, the attitude towards banchan in London gets to me a bit, and SuperStar is no exception here, no matter how delicious the plates we ordered were. Traditionally, banchan is free. They’re little complimentary plates where you never know what you’re going to get, and for a proper Korean meal you need a lot of them on the table. Check out this Google image search, for what I’m talking about. They’re a way for the kitchen to use things up, and to mix up the meal a little. They’re half the excitement of going for barbecue. I think having to order these plates takes some of the experience away, and when you have to keep on ordering lettuce as you only get a few pieces in each plate (not enough for the meat portions) it gets difficult for diners. Now, I do totally understand how much financial pressure restaurants are under at the moment, especially in Central London, but this is something they have sussed in America. Perhaps one flat price may be the way to go for a whole myriad of plates to go with your meal?
This is how I like my wraps, in case you don’t know where to start: spread with a little miso, stuffed with a mix of both beef and pork, topped off with some kimchee and perhaps any other banchan pickles that have appeared, before being dipped in sweet (rather than soy based) sauce. While stuffing in rice is also common, I prefer to eat that on the side with more meat, when I do order it (SuperStar also does some great looking non-barbecue dishes and lunch sets, this marinated and barbecued meat is great as part of a rice bowl, and a much better meal if you’re hanging with your friends in their karaoke room!)
Dining with Eddie, my partner in crime in all authentic Asian cuisines (last seen at Hot Pot in Chinatown) who loves Korean food as much as I do, we simply had to also order a plate of spicy rice cakes that we hoovered up in no time from the sides section. Less crispy than the soy rice cakes I make at home and a lot more saucy than the ones I like at Bó Drake, these were sweet and spicy, but not too much so, and deliciously tender and addictive. You’re seriously missing out if you don’t order these on the side, like we did.
Yes, I have a few niggles about how Korean barbecue is presented in London. I’ve been spoilt by the fact I lost my Korean food virginity at one of the West’s best restaurants for the stuff, and the fact the massive tub of gochujang in my fridge indicates just how much Korean food I cook for myself at home. However, I can safely say out of the ones I’ve tried so far, SuperStar Korean Barbecue is the best Korean barbecue restaurant in London (well, for the savoury dishes. They’d literally run out of dessert when we visited so a late night trip to Candy Cafe for matcha sundaes in Chinatown followed), so if you’ve still never had it before, book a table, grab some friends and order up way more meat than you think you can eat in one sitting, a load of banchan (don’t forget the kimchee!) and a couple of bottles of soju.