It’s all about the grill for Tom at this immersive Korean barbecue experience in London.
For a few moments, it all seems too much, a full-frontal assault on my tender senses, a cacophonous affront to a previously tranquil life. The din – dear god, that din – punctuated with roars of delight and shrieks of laughter. And the room, dangerously dim, the air thick with smoke and desire. It’s packed, straining at the seams (all Covid secure, of course), as harried but friendly staff rush and bustle with plates of raw meat, bottles of ice-cold beer and carafe after carafe of soju, that smoothy lethal Korean dram.
Because here at Koba, a Korean barbecue restaurant just behind London’s Charlotte Street, things are as they once were. Each table has its own grill (gas, sadly, rather than charcoal), with an elephant trunk-shaped extractor fan hanging above. It battles gamely with the char-scented fug, but to no avail. Anyway, that’s part of the fun, to leave the place scented with eau de Maillard reaction. This is all about the grill.
Sure, the seafood pancake is excellent, both crisp and chewy, filled with kimchi and octopus, prawns and mussels, containing that wonderfully Korean combination of the sweet and mildly spicy. And softly silken miso sobaegi, an umami explosion of aubergine, miso and mushrooms, is rich and subtle, with a sly chilli kick. Toppoki, cylindrical spicy rice cakes, are as chewy and satisfying as ever.
But as the gas is turned on, and the grill heats up, so the raw meats start to arrive, all hewn from well brought-up beasts. Rib eye, the fat swirling through the flesh in great alabaster eddies, needs only a few moments on the heat before being removed, splodged with gochujang, all sweet, fermented chilli hit and a pinch of spring onion, and wrapped in a vast lettuce leaf. Cool, crunch, hot, chew. Divine. There’s LA galbi, soy-marinated beef ribs, more heft and chew.
And spicy pork belly, spicy chicken – glorious carnivorous overload – all cooked, chopped anointed, wrapped and devoured. Washed down with Cass beer, then soju, and more soju and before long, we are not just feasting in Koba but are part of it, the joyous collective experience of eating out, together, on a busy weeknight. The smoke grows thicker, the hubbub more boisterous. On the next-door table, a drinking game begins.
About £40 a head. Koba, 11 Rathbone Street, London W1; kobalondon.com
Drinks: Olly’s finest English fizz
It’s Father’s Day and the start of English Wine Week – a perfect excuse to pop a bottle of homegrown bubbly! For years, I’ve been buying more English fizz than Champagne for year-round sipping because I believe in the rising quality of our vineyards and the world-class talent in our wineries. And it shows in the glass. If there’s a vineyard near you, pop along this week and get tasting – visit winegb.co.uk for more.
Wine of the week
GUSBOURNE BLANC DE BLANCS 2016 (12%), £59, gusbourne.com. Stellar Kent fizz that tastes like big-name bubbly and beyond. Ethereal, rich – a festival of finesse.
COL FONDO 2018 (12%), £22, littlewaddonvineyard.co.uk. Fragrant, summery, scented and peachy. Fabulous, easy fizz from Dorset.
LANGHAM CULVER (12%), £27.50, langhamwines.co.uk. Cow parsley in an apple orchard! Scented, dreamy and simply scrumptious.
EXTON PARK RESERVE BLEND RB 23 ROSÉ (11.5%), £39, extonparkvineyard.com. Peaches and strawberries in effervescent perfection. Hampshire’s greatest hit!