Thursday, 9 August 2018

Hana, Battersea

One of the many enduring mysteries of London dining, alongside the baffling popularity of the Breakfast Club and why hand wash and moisturiser are always presented in identical-looking containers, is why there seem to be so few genuinely excellent Korean restaurants. Much as I sort of enjoyed Asadal in Holborn, Assa in Soho and a couple of places in New Malden (I had a lovely meal at Jin Go Gae but it was a press dinner so not very representative), none have really blown me away and hardly any have warranted a return visit. Most of the Korean restaurants I've come across in London so far have been at best solid, with very similar, somewhat unambitious menus that never really offer great value for money. It speaks volumes that the best of the bunch is probably Zip Bab, which gets a pass for the decent price points and friendly service, even if it's a bit like eating in a doctor's surgery waiting room.

What Korean food needs is perhaps what Silk Road does for Chinese food or Kanada-Ya does for Japanese - ultra specialisation on either one dish or one specific region. A restaurant that unapologetically offers a focussed, coherent vision of what the best Korean food should be, and pours its energies into making that one thing (or one style) as exciting as possible, without sacrificing anything to any notion of what London is "ready for" or what is least likely to offend. If London is anything it's a city of risk-takers, and - so far - Korean restaurateurs are yet to take advantage of that.

If it sounds like I'm building up to announce the discovery of a Korean Bao or Hoppers, well, I'm not. Sorry. Hana is fine in the way that most Korean restaurants in London are at least fine but it suffers from the same lack of ambition as so many others, and barely stands out from the crowd even on Battersea Rise, a road which contains such joys as "Café Rouge with a GCSE" Côte, dull-as-dishwater pan-Asian chain Banana Tree, and, yes, bloody Breakfast Club.

I was pleasantly surprised at first to see that Hana offer three different types of kimchee. I'm reliably informed (though have never been myself) that in Korea the best establishments offer a huge variety, with each restaurant fiercely proud - and protective - of its own particular way with fermented pickled cabbage. The standard kimchee at Hana was decent, though would have benefitted from a bit more of a chilli kick, but the "Kkak Du Gi" (radish) was pretty bland and uninspiring and the "Ohi kimchee" (cucumber) had a rather offputting fizz to it. Perhaps this was deliberate, and I'm showing my Korean food ignorance here, but it spoke of something less "fermented" than simply "gone off".

"Hana Sticky Chicken" should have been wonderful. In fact I don't know how you manage to cook fried chicken in a soy/chilli sauce and not have it be wonderful, but Hana managed it, ending up with a sweet, bland dressing that had plenty of empty chilli heat with none of the flavour. One day a dish called "sticky chicken" will end up tasting as good as it looks on paper, but this wasn't it.

Continuing the theme, "Soontofu Jigae" should be a rich, beguiling seafood soup/stew, powerfully seasoned with anchovy stock and packed full of interesting shellfish. How on earth this ended up with all the personality of tap water is a complete mystery - like Liberace's front room it had plenty of colour and no taste.

I should point out in fairness that my companion said she enjoyed her chicken bibimbap very much, and polished off most of it. But the one bit of cubed chicken breast I tried was unpleasantly dry, and I'm not sure in what reality cheap chicken, rice and chopped veg should cost £10.95. Even Asadal only charge £8.50 for theirs and they have Holborn rents to contend with.

Service eventually settled down but started weirdly. Two members of staff, chatting at the bar, saw me furiously signalling for a beer but instead of coming over themselves waited until a third person appeared from the back and got them to see what I wanted. At first I thought this was because those first couple of people weren't serving staff, but then one of them later brought me my Soontofu Jigae. So I don't know what was going on there, other than me feeling like I was a bit of an inconvenience.

It's doubly frustrating that Hana wasn't the Korean restaurant I'd been waiting for, not just because it's within walking distance of my house (though this in itself should have set alarm bells ringing; nothing good ever happens in Clapham Junction) but because I know Korean food can be so good. Ask anyone who's ever eaten in Korea, and they'll tell you the street food markets and Buddhist temple restaurants and seolleongtang (beef bone soup from an ancient recipe) stalls of Seoul are the stuff of dreams. The best KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) I've come across in London was a short-lived collaboration between Gizzi Erskine and the Soho branch of Tonkotsu, and lovely though it was, it's a pretty clear sign that the Korean foodies of London need to seriously up their game. Come on guys, we're ready for you.



Anonymous said...

Worth a go at Coqfighter is Hammersmith. KFC in Bao buns - not perfect (i.e. not Chick'n Sours level) and a struggle to make a good "full" meal out of the menu, but the quality of the chicken is good the frying also so - what they do, they do well.

Anonymous said...

I too live in Battersea and was reaaally hoping this place would break the mould. Back to Fish in a Tie and 6 pints in The Asparagus for dessert for me