Monday, 20 January 2014
On The Bab, Shoreditch
From the top deck of the bus at Vauxhall this weekend I noticed a large electronic billboard advertising what seemed like some horrid new reality TV show. "StEaX and the City", you would be forgiven for assuming, involves couples competing against each other in a series of increasingly difficult steak-related challenges for the chance to have sex in a box in a TV studio. Except, it isn't. It's actually the name of a "American themed steakhouse fusion with Japanese kitchen", with a name apparently chosen by a guy who likes to be known as the "wacky one" in the office. God save us from other people's idea of comedy.
But if "S***X and the City" (sorry I can't even bring myself to type it out in full) makes you want to cleave your own head in with a meat tenderiser, it takes a special kind of courage (or complete naive obliviousness) to open a restaurant whose name brings to mind feminine hygiene. "Do you fancy a Korean tonight?" "No thanks darling, I'm On The Bab. I'll just have some cheese on toast then finish off that box of Thorntons in front of Downton Abbey." Which is a shame, because the food at this tiny little Old Street restaurant certainly deserves better than the name it's been given, and deserves to do rather well.
Negatives (name aside) first. As I say, it's a tiny little place and they've crammed a greedy number of tables in - the functional decor and rotating cabinet of bulgogi buns behind the counter add to the Seoul street food vibe, but knocking elbows with your fellow diners is never going to be a wholly enjoyable experience however authentic it is. And considering how seemingly authentic the menu and everything else was, it was a surprise to discover the beef buns themselves were the biggest disappointment of the evening - soggy and impractically large and containing a filling of bland beef stew, rather like the one of those Old El Paso beef fajita mixes.
Fortunately, everything else was much better. House kimchi was good - only mildly spicy and mildly fermented, but crunchy and colourful and presented in a little metal lidded jar. I'm told that it's normal in Korea to be offered a selection of kimchi in restaurants so diners can choose between different levels of fermentation and heat; it would be nice to have that option somewhere here too. Maybe one day. That next to the kimchi is pa jeon, spring onion & seafood pancakes, soft and satisfying and greaseless.
Our favourite dish was kimchi bokeum bab, described as "bacon paella" (what's not to like) with a fried egg on top. It was rich and salty while not being too heavy, and a decent amount of it for £7.50. The house fried chicken was also a good example of East Asian comfort food, although they could have done with taking more care on the butchery - I found a few bits of chicken bone marrow and gristle, which wasn't particularly fun.
But, at £20 a head for a whole lot of food, most of which was pretty good, we didn't leave hungry or disappointed. Sure, I have a strong feeling this isn't the best that the Korean peninsula has to offer, but it's early days, not just for On The Bab but for Korean food in London generally. One day someone will do for this cuisine what Gymkhana has done for Indian, or Hawksmoor did for the American steakhouse. In the meantime, you can do worse than pop in for a kimchi, cheese & egg omelette and a beer at On The Bab. It could be your monthly treat.