Wednesday, 29 April 2015
Bó Drake, Soho
The idea of a Korean BBQ restaurant is one I can entirely get behind. There are very few ways of slow-smoking tender cuts of short rib and brisket that don't make me want to throw money at them, and though I'm a relative newcomer to the delights of Korean food (try Jingogae in New Malden, it's ace) I know enough about bubbly fried chicken wings and crunchy, fizzy kimchee to get very excited about anywhere with ambitions to combine the two.
Bó Drake is doing many things right on paper. Literally, in fact - the menu reads incredibly well, with various BBQ standards (pulled pork, ribs, etc) treated to exciting and unfamiliar (at least to me) Korean flavours and all very keenly priced. If the place were to be measured on its menu alone, it would score top marks; it reminded me very much of Smoking Goat's - concise, elegant, and daring you to order every damn thing.
But a meal last night proved only that the more enticing your menu, the more distressing it is when dishes turn that don't live up to expectations. And not just the food - doesn't a drink involving Campari, gin, antica formula, orange marmalade (actually it was "marmelade" on the menu but I'll let that slip) and popcorn syrup sound nice? And at only £7.50, almost a bargain. This is what turned up:
How on God's green earth anyone decided serving a cocktail in a Kilner jar with the lid still attached would ever be a good idea is beyond me. I presumed I was supposed to mix the teaspoon of marmalade into the drink, so I did, but this only meant the tiny black straws - my one available method of getting the liquid out of the jar into my mouth without making of a complete tit of myself - quickly clogged up. In the end I just about managed to get it drunk after furiously mixing the marmalade in as finely as possible using the spoon to mash up the big chunks; it tasted of little more than Campari, bitter and boring. "Luscious spices" (ordered because they'd run out of watermelon for the "Watermelon Soju Tinny", dread to think what that came in) was better though, fresh and sprightly and - crucially - served in a normal highball glass.
The food itself wasn't awful, just not particularly memorable given the expectations raised by the Korean BBQ concept. Bo ssäm when served at Momofuku in New York is a whole BBQ pork shoulder accompanied by oysters, rice, lettuce, kimchi and dipping sauces. You could see they'd tried to do something similar here, but the pork itself was pappy and bland, with no nice crunchy "burnt ends", and the kimchi too lacked chilli or flavour or something. I liked the spicy BBQ sauce though, and the spring onion oil.
Kalbi short ribs were seasoned well but were slightly tough and lifeless, like they'd been stood around a bit too long. I'd like more crunch and fire from the grill, and for them to have been even a little bit pink inside.
Crispy squid were also a bit room temperature and chewy, though the ginger & lime aioli they were came with was lovely. Am I wrong to expect a little more than this from a thrusting new Korean BBQ restaurant in Soho? Crispy squid is all very well and good, but hardly revolutionary.
Panfried cauliflower was even more confusing. You'd think they might have tried coal-roasting a whole head of cauliflower as is becoming quite trendy, or at least present them with a bit more rustic flair. These tiny bits of timidly cooked veg arrived twee-ly arranged on top of some soily mushroom paste, in between discs of radish, all of it looking so exact and self-conscious it was like a refugee from a vegetarian restaurant trying for Michelin stars instead of anything involving BBQ. Or Korea, for that matter.
Lamb cutlets were tender and cooked perfectly pink, so that was something, but again a tendency to frilly presentation meant any texture they ever had from a charcoal grill was hidden beneath a (admittedly rather nice) pear sauce and so it all came across a bit provincial high street. Where was the confidence, the ambition? Where was London 2015?
In the end though, I didn't leave angry, just disappointed. The £30/head bill was almost exactly what I expected to pay, the food though never exciting was never less than edible, and nothing (apart from a couple of bits of cauliflower) was wasted. But I got the impression that this was an operation too worried about scaring potential customers away to really challenge the way people in London think about Korean food. Perhaps a Korean Smoking Goat was expecting too much but it's certainly true that the boys on Denmark St genuinely relaunched Thai food on the capital, and wouldn't it have been great if Bó Drake could have done the same? Or at least tried to? Instead, we have a slightly awkward prod at low-n-slow American BBQ with Korean sauces which never really does justice to either. So, the Korean standard-bearer torch in central London remains unclaimed, for now. Meantime, we'll always have New Malden.
So you probably don't want to eat at Bó Drake. But where else is good round there? Why not download my app and find out? Still only £2.99