Hurwundeki, restaurant review: How did we find ourselves eating in a barber shop?

Arch 298, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 (020-8981 0267)

If this column is of any value to you as a trusted source, I urge you to heed this week's advice. Never ask a food-crazed twentysomething for a restaurant recommendation.

I did. And that was a mistake. Wavering between two options, I consulted the clever young chap who presides over this magazine's food pages, and he suggested option three. Which is how I found myself sitting in a Korean café-cum-barber shop under the railway arches in Bethnal Green, waiting for my guest to return from her mercy dash to the nearest heavily-fortified off-licence.

Samuel, I don't blame you, I blame myself. I should have googled Hurwundeki before I went. I would have known it was unlicensed. And that it was more of a café than a restaurant, and therefore possibly not the perfect place for a reunion dinner with a long-exiled best friend who has recently returned to live in London. But your description of it as "hipsterish, and quite charming" was so beguiling, I just went with the flow. Also, I didn't want to confess that, while "everyone is going on about it", and Hurwundeki's Korean owner is the scenester behind various red-hot boutiques and salons across the East End, I had never heard of it.

Hipsterish, Hurwundeki most certainly is, with its ephemera-filled terrace and junkyard-chic décor. And charming, too, if your idea of charm is modelled on Henry Moore's drawings of London underground stations during the Blitz: a bare brick tunnel, close-pressed bodies and a throbbing backdrop of industrial noise. "Steptoe's Yard," was Sharon's verdict, as the darkness receded enough to reveal random taxidermy, a few artlessly hung hats and some low-slung chandeliers. Oh, and an en suite barber shop complete with idling on-duty stylist.

In a small open kitchen, under a corrugated iron lean-to, a couple of chefs produce their own version of Korean standards, using 'modern techniques', apparently. It's cheap. Nothing on the menu costs over £9, with drinks limited to Korean fruit teas (did I mention that it's unlicensed?). And it's also confusingly speedy. Three dishes were cooling on the table by the time Shazzer staggered back from the offie, bag clanking with celebratory wine we wouldn't have time to drink.

Stowing the carrier bag of shame under the chipboard table (the furniture is tiny, like an infant school for lumberjacks) we applied ourselves to the food, braced for the fusillade of powerful, contrasting flavours which characterises a good Korean meal. It never happened. Both starters were filler, not thriller: mandu – plain, pot-sticker fried dumplings filled with minced chicken, and seafood jeon – rosti-like pancakes holding rubbery bits of anonymous seafood.

Kimchi, that addictively sour and whiffy fermented cabbage dish, had heat and crunch, but not enough ripe complexity. Neither of the grilled meat dishes – thick-cut bites of pork belly (samgyeopsal) or spicy/sweet chicken bulgogi – jumped out of the darkness to thrill us. The classic bibimbap was more satisfying – a deep earthenware pot filled with vegetables, beef and a glistening egg yolk, which when mixed together with chopsticks, continues cooking in the hot bowl, creating a crunchy layer of rice at the bottom.

I'm not sure how authentic it was. Mind you, I'm not sure how authentic our waiter was. He could well have been a barber who'd wandered through to borrow something, or just a passing emissary from the planet Man Bun. He returned as we were preparing to pour a second glass of wine. "Do you mind if I give you the bill – we need the table back?" We'd been there 40 minutes, and for 20 of them, one of us had been out buying wine.

They don't serve puddings. Why would they? Nor do they accept credit cards.

It's obviously meant to be a quick, in-and-out sort of place, somewhere you'd call in for a quick bite, and maybe a radical haircut, on your way to somewhere else. But we didn't want to go somewhere else. We wanted to stay there. So we ordered a couple more dishes and sat it out.

As a leisure experience, it was the food equivalent of our ill-advised flirtation long ago with whippersnappers and mood-altering substances, as shamingly memorialised in Bridget Jones's Diary. How did we find ourselves eating in a barber shop, where the loo is a single, grotty, precariously-latched cubicle, when there are wonderful, comfortable new restaurants opening all the time in this thrilling city?

Still, it was cheap, and we did manage to have fun (honestly, Sam) despite the air of desperately high seriousness that hangs over the whole enterprise. But if comfort and conviviality matter more to you than hipness, Hurwundeki is not for you. Trust me on this.

Food ***
Ambience **
Service ***

Arch 298, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 (020-8981 0267). Around £15 a head. Bring your own wine/beer

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