Pickled memory of Seoul food

BU-SAN - 43 Holloway Road, London N7 8JP. Tel: 0171-607 8264. Open every day for dinner, Mon-Fri for lunch. Set dinner menu for two, pounds 27.50-pounds 34.50. A la carte three-course meal from pounds 14. Visa, E urocard and Mastercard accepted.
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I APPROACHED the menu at the Bu-San restaurant with some caution. Having spent a year in Korea during National Service, I was still prejudiced against the country's food. Seoul in those days was a charming old-world city, largely of one-storey buildings, with curly-ended roofs and ornamental gateways, only marred by a single high-rise American hotel in primitive concrete. In the narrow streets we found one very good old-fashioned restaurant with heavy linen tablecloths and comfortable old banquettes, but it was Chinese.

At night little lamp-lit stalls proliferated beside the main roads, but we were strongly advised against eating anything from them. Off-duty and out of Seoul, on a tour of country mission-churches with the Anglican bishop, we did eat very well in the thatched huts with their sliding doors and underheated polished floors. The women sat at one end of the hut in their colourful clothes, the men sat cross-legged at the other and expected to be served. We were brought bowls of soup, big dishes of large-grained rice - manured, according to military hearsay, with human excrement - and cooked vegetables. The bishop's trick, I remember, of transferring a fried egg from a remote bowl with chopsticks went wrong when it slipped off and fell into someone else's soup.

But my most intense memory of our urban Korean hosts, and of those local troops we met on duty, was of a sour, garlic-like smell that hung on their breath and even seemed to soak through their skin. It came, again according to military hearsay, from eating kimchi, a kind of pickle allegedly buried underground for months before it was considered fierce enough to eat.

No such pong was discernible at the Bu-San, 100 yards west of Highbury and Islington underground station in north London. I even ordered a little pot of Kim Chi from the list of starters - "pickled Chinese cabbage in traditional Korean stlye" - and found it slightly vinegary but otherwise a lot less spicy and garlic-laden than the char-grilled vegetables they do at my local, Il Portico in Kensington.

The Bu-San is a small, neat room with plain wooden tables and chairs, decorated with travel posters, and a man by the window with a voice like a power drill was giving his life and opinions to a shell-shocked male companion. "That, you see, was my rationale." Other diners ranged from North London Bohemian to Young Romantic Suit with Grumpy Compan-ion. The proprietor, an elegant Korean lady with an equally elegant grasp of English, came over to discuss starters. There was bad news. The bean sprouts had not been very good today, so she had not bought them. My wife said she was more interested in the Cho Ga Sal Bok Um, fresh fried scallops served in a shell with a spicy sauce. This brought more bad news: unlike the bean sprouts the scallops had been very good today, and they had all gone.

From then on the evening began rapidly to improve: as well as the Kim Chi we ordered Gim, oblong slices of toasted seaweed, Shigumchi Namul, spinach seasoned with sesame oil, Ho Bak Bok Um, sesame-fried marrow with garlic and soy sauce, and two glasses of quite strong Korean beer. These starters arrived, and were absolutely delicious, a subtle mixture of Japanese food and Provencal cooking.

There is a very wide variety of things to eat at Bu-San: every dish is numbered, and there are 82 of them. Bearing in mind the shortage of scallops, we missed the He Mul Chap Tang Chi Ge, a kind of Korean bouillabaisse and fairly expensive at pounds 17.50, and the similarly lypriced mixture of fried seafood called He Mul Chap Tang Bok Um. The two dishes none the less gave us a sense that once you'd learnt a phrase like He Mul Chap the Korean language might really be quite manageable.

We also passed over all sorts of things with oysters or prawns, and the lobster Chim, fried with either soy sauce or chilli sauce, on the grounds that it cost pounds 25.

I liked the sound of So Go Gi Tang Su Yuk, "mouth-watering sweet and sour beef", but the proprietor advised against it, saying that some guests, presumably other Europeans, didn't like it. If this sounds too impossibly bossy on her part I can only say that it was wholly reassuring and created more the mood of a private house than a restaurant.

After quite a lot more discussion we finally had a salmon Sa Shi Mi, very generous chunks of sliced raw fish arranged round a spectacular decoration made from a red pepper; a Bu-San steak, pieces of undercooked and delicately marinated beef in a wonderful sauce; Ya Chae Bok Um, fried mixed vegetables; and Dol Sot Bibim Dap, steamed rice with beef, egg, seaweed and vegetables in a hot stone bowl; with a bottle of Muscadet.

By now it was getting dark outside, and red buses and long lorries were rumbling by a few feet beyond the windows, brilliantly lit by lamps on the outside of the building. Then there was a discreet theatrical entrance, and even the power drill cut back on the volume. Gilbert and George, the performance artists, had come in.

They were exquisitely dressed in perfect tweeds, scrubbed and shining, and having them sitting at the next table gave the rest of the evening extraordinary style: every gesture, every inclination of the head to examine the wine, every detail of their good-mannered conversation, correctly inaudible, seemed both studied and spontaneous.

Slightly awed at being in the presence of living art - although I suppose one usually is in any restaurant full of people eating - we ate our pudding. My wife had lychees and I had mixed fruit, a huge theatrically designed slice of fresh watermelon with nectarines, oranges and grapes.

There is a set vegetarian menu at pounds 27.90 for two and a Sukiyaki dinner at pounds 34.50. Our own dinner for two cost pounds 69.30 without the tip.