Tuesday 10 May 2011

Assa, Covent Garden

In a city as infuriatingly wallet-draining as London it is a pleasant surprise to find a sit down lunch worth eating for less than £20, never mind anything much under that. So Assa in St Giles, serving a set menu of various Korean staples and two sides for £5.50, seemed to be offering a deal too good to be true. You can spend £6 in Pret a Manger only to end up with a lifeless mess of soggy, unseasoned ingredients inside two slices of "bread" barely distinguishable in taste or texture from the cardboard it comes packaged in, and they have queues out the door of every branch every day. And yet somehow, these hideous places survive - indeed flourish, for some bloody reason - barely minutes away from homely little joints like Assa with their home made kimchi and hot tofu soups.

I'll be the first to admit I know next to nothing about Korean food, but it all seemed fresh and tasty enough for such a small amount of money. Sides of sesame-marinated beansprouts and nice salty seaweed came as part of the lunch deal but I couldn't resist paying another £1.50 for the house kimchi, crunchy and pleasantly pungent and a damn sight nicer than the stuff at flashy new restaurant Kimchee in High Holborn which cost £2.30. The restaurant Kimchee, by the way, was so dull I couldn't even be bothered to write it up, but go and read the ever-reliable Marina O'Loughlin's review to see what I mean.

I think I preferred my spicy beef main, the chunks of superbly tender marinated beef flavoured with sweet onions and chilli oil, than what I tried of my friend's tofu broth, but they both looked the part, the tofu served lively and sizzling in its superheated pot and the beef alongside a generous portion of rice in a large, shallow bowl. It wasn't dazzling by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a great deal better than you had any right to expect for £5.50 - just think of Pret - and came with complimentary green tea. When I asked for water, they brought tap, quickly, and with a smile. We couldn't really complain about anything.

Just a few words, then, on a hardly earth-shattering but nice and unassuming place to eat your lunch in central London. But I thought it worth the effort to emphasise that while it's easy to get into the habit of automatically assuming you have to pay through the nose for decent grub in this town, Assa is living proof that there are in fact ways of getting your belly full without noticing that much more of a hit on your wallet than if you'd brought in sandwiches from home. And given the choice between even the nicest cheese & ham sarnie kept squished at the bottom of your bag until midday, and a bowl of cooked-to-order spicy beef and rice, well, I know which I'd prefer.


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