Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Zip Bab, Bloomsbury

I get used to moaning about the lack of decent quick, takeaway-friendly options in Holborn/Bloomsbury because that happens to be the corner of the city in which I spend most of my time during the week, but then perhaps there's no utterly ideal London neighbourhood for work lunches. Soho probably comes closest, but even there the queues at the good places mean you spend most of your time standing in the rain instead of eating, and you'll still pay for the privilege. Though I wouldn't trade my daily commute on South West Trains, shonky and stressful as it is, for the pressure-cooker Seoul Metro, I do wish I had the choice of a thousand spare seats at a good noodle bar for lunch like the lucky workers of Korea. I'd actually look forward to lunches like that.

So I strongly considered keeping Zip Bab to myself. I should say from the start that I have never been to Korea, and the entirity of my knowledge of Korean food is gleaned from a couple of meals in New Malden (Jin Go Gae is excellent) and the odd popup by Gizzi Erskine. This, I know, is not any kind of position to be credibly ruling on the authenticity or otherwise of anywhere calling itself Korean. But as far as I ever have an intuition for these kinds of things, Zip Bab feels authentic, and the food feels like the kind of thing hungry Koreans would snaffle down of a lunchtime, and I'm worried that once the word gets out it will turn into another Kanada-Ya - impossibly busy, a theoretical restaurant, just a memory of noodles past.

In the meantime, though, I'm determined to make the most of it. Excuse the range in quality of photos - I only had my big camera on one of my three visits - but hopefully they're enough to demonstrate that whatever it is that Zip Bab are doing, they're doing it very well indeed. My first lunch involved a bit of a mistake on my part - I really wanted the luminous orange Korean fried chicken, in that addictive sweet chilli sauce, as proudly displayed on the window menu. Unfortunately I wasn't paying attention properly and accidentally ended up with "soy chicken", the same big, strong wings and crunchy batter but a different finish. They were still lovely things though, and not much of a downgrade.

Also on that first visit, and not pictured, was a bowl of sweet and sour pork on rice noodles which verged on familiar to this Englishman but was incredibly easy to enjoy nontheless. And in a strange way, though I have no evidence at all to back this up, I can imagine Korean people eating it of a lunchtime, alongside a little bowl of their very decent house kimchi. So I will continue to imagine that.

Despite the food on day one being very good if not spectacular, enthusiastic and charming service and the certainty I'd not yet seen the best of the place necessitated a return visit, and it was here that the fireworks really started to fly. Zip Bab do a small number of "set" lunches, where you pick a main and are given a selection of salads and sauces to go with it. I'm afraid I can't remember how this was listed on their menu, but a quick Google for "Korean lettuce wrap set" reveals it could be something called ssam and I'd advise you to look for that name if you ever fancy a visit. Because it was great - lovely soft pieces of pork, joined with a heavily dressed green salad, topped with a fantastic chilli-miso sauce (also available in bottles on each table), and wrapped in butter lettuce, sort of like a green taco. Enormous fun and quite unlike anything else I've ever had for lunch in Bloomsbury.

By this point, Zip Bab had me sold, so I could hardly not return a couple of days later to sample the original flavour KFC I'd missed out on the first time. It was, as I suspected it would be, lovely - generous of flavour and portion size, with a great sweet/sour chilli dressing and piping hot straight from the fryer. This is the quintissential Korean comfort food, and admittedly it wouldn't say much about a Korean restaurant if they couldn't get this right, but it was still a joy to get up to my elbows in sauce and embarrass my lunch companion. They provided a couple of hot towels, but I was so coated in the stuff I had to get up and rinse off in the bathroom before facing the world again.

And, needless to say, I'll be back again and again, at least until the rest of the city catches on and they're queuing down the street. I spot yet more unusual things on the extended menu, such as a "spicy whelk salad", which sounds like it could be interesting, and I bet their bibimbap is worth the price of admission, but perhaps I'll never need anything more than a portion of sticky, spicy wings, rice and a small bowl of kimchi, and a quiet table in the corner to cover myself in it all. Work lunchers of Bloomsbury, I can only apologise in advance.



Anonymous said...

Looks delicious.. Have you been to Shep's yet?

Chris Pople said...

Anon: No, looks good though!

Unknown said...

You are right it is called ssam bab and the place to have it in all its glory is Seoul restaurant in New Malden. They are on the same strip as You Me house on Burlington road which you reviewed before.