On The Bab, restaurant review: Korean street dishes for hip diners looking for fun?
Lisa Markwell is the editor of The Independent on Sunday. She was previously executive editor of The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday and has edited the features pages, and both the Saturday and Sunday supplements. She writes comment pieces for the papers and restaurant reviews for the New Review. Lisa has worked across a variety of newspapers and magazines and can now tick off every publication cycle from daily to quarterly. She is an enthusiastic foodie, mother of two teenagers and drives an electric car. She is writing a book about adoption.
Sunday 26 January 2014
If you were inventing a restaurant to promote London's scene it would, surely, be this: Korean street food in Hoxton. It's got in-flight magazine article all over it: "Visitors to London will love this edgy eatery." Shudder.
But is that a reason not to love it? Is it owner Linda Lee's fault that kimchi and gochujang have been designated flavours of the month? Certainly not. This place is sating an appetite. If only the food were a little, well, better. Lee already has a Korean restaurant, Koba, and a Japanese, Nizuni, both of which are well reviewed.
On the Bab is a curious name if you're just passing and not down with the whole Korean street-food thing. You might be forgiven for thinking it's a slangy Turkish thing – "on the 'bab". In fact, it means "served with rice", although that's by no means the defining characteristic of dishes on offer.
In a narrow room, all bare bricks and hard seats, the punishing fine-black-print-on-brown-paper menu seems designed to put off ancient crones like me. I use my iPhone torch shamelessly (although when I offer it later to the chap at the next table, who's holding the menu so close it's touching his nose, he shrinks back. Who wants to look "old" in Shoreditch, his expression screams.)
On the Bab is an "anju" joint – in Korea, where food is served with alcohol. Gosh, will it ever catch on? The cocktails are tempting, certainly. It being a school night, I have a Never Drunk, which could be subject to the Trades Descriptions Act. It's soju and tonic, with ribbons of cucumber crammed into the glass. The other drink that's popular is So Maek, which is a beer-and-spirit combo in a metal beaker – Mr M is bemused by it, but not hammered: soju is lighter than your average, or even artisan, gin or vodka.
Perhaps if I'd stuck to a cocktail and fried chicken, everything would have been perfect. Most of our neighbours (the tables are so close together, I know everything everyone orders) are having beers and steamed buns stuffed with spicy meats, before heading elsewhere – I hear "Let's go and get a Viennetta for pudding" from one fleetingly seated couple.
But I want to get my money's worth from the ruinous parking costs of Hoxton Square (and I'm greedy), so we start with pa jeon (a spring-onion-and-seafood pancake, £4.90) and bab twigin (a Korean version of Italian arancini, £3.80). I don't mind food in metal trays on greaseproof paper – lord knows it's ubiquitous – but it only serves to show just how much grease that little pancake has soaked up. It's not terribly nice, but better than an unholy alliance of kimchi and cheese.
I've got the nagging feeling that I could be ordering something different that might be more authentic, or nicer, but the staff are run off their feet and blinking slightly at the relentless arrival of customers.
Maybe the fishcake-and-radish casserole, and the Korean-style kimchi bacon paella with a fried egg on top are taste sensations, but to my lesser-travelled stomach, they are unappealing.
So, yes, stuck in my comfort zone with fried chicken. The yangyum (small size, £11.90) is a heap of misshapes with crushed peanuts and either soy garlic or sweet spicy sauce and shredded cabbage and radish pickle. It doesn't get much more comfort than this (as Gregg Wallace might say).
Craftily, brilliantly, you can get this "half and half", the two sauces proving as addictive as each other. The thick, crisp coating is as much a draw as the meat inside, which is unremarkable, but it's the perfect twin for the booze: one assaults the tastebuds and the other (preferably the beery bomb) slakes the inevitable thirst. Subtle, it ain't.
Mr M is steadfastly working through his bibimbab, a rice-and-vegetable pot spiked with that piquant gochujang sauce and with spicy pork (or bulgogi beef, tender marinated strips) but it's a bit less zingy and more stomach-liner, if we're honest. And with that we're done.
I don't mean to sound grouchy; I'd have killed to have On the Bab near me when my evenings had no destination, just a procession of stopping-off points, where food and alcohol are peripheral, not the main event.
On The Bab, 305 Old Street, London EC1, tel: 020 7683 0361. £55 for two, with a drink
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