Nick finds that Korean BBQ and Pyeonbaek make this new restaurant an interactive taste experience
I can’t say I know much about Korean food, although I do love Kimchi. I love it so much I even make it at home and so there’s always a jar fermenting in the fridge. The aroma is a bit potent though so I’m occasionally ordered to store it in the garden shed. That’s okay, it means I can nibble on it while I rearrange my tools.
Chungdam is a Korean restaurant new to Soho and handily it’s in the same street as our office. The name apparently is a reference to the Cheongdam-dong district in Seoul, which is by all accounts Seoul’s Soho/Shoreditch.
It’s very minimal inside, very pared down, and because it is a Korean BBQ and Pyeonbaek steam box (more of that later) place, each table has a built-in grill which is covered over when not in use. It’s used a fair bit though, because in this style of restaurant it’s normal to cook your food yourself, although our waitress told us that in Korean family situations it’s usually the man’s job.
Identifying as two men, we drink pleasant Korean soju cocktails – rice wine and soju – and share cooking duties, although our helpful waitress in a uniform of light blue blazer and chinos, ends up having to do most of the work in the face of our manifest incompetence.
We take advice on what to eat and in what order and so kick off with namul -kimchi, which is a block of kimchi with a selection of pickled and fermented vegetables. We get a tangle of sesame-perfumed noodles, some dishes of shredded and dressed mooli plus asparagus, spinach, okra and tomatoes. These are all remarkable little treats, an appetite inducing cornucopia of flavours and textures. The hunk of perfectly layered kimchi adds some fire and crunch.
We’re letting the team do our menu, so each dish is a bit of a surprise. We love the Japchae, little pieces of perfect beef in a tangle of glass noodles dotted through with slippery mushrooms. It’s a case of less is more, the beef is just enough to be an ingredient and not a diva star. Glass noodles are always hard to cook just right, but here they’re bang on and gently spiced.
We’re not so keen on the seafood pancakes that follow, there’s plenty of fish in them but they’re bit bland and rather oily. The various dipping sauces do liven them up a bit though.
The grill in front of us has meanwhile been fired up and is pumping out some serious heat, so we sit back. Rubbed with a cut head of garlic, it soon has some prime ribeye plopped on and this sizzles cheerfully with our kind waitress judging when it’s done and snipping it into bite size pieces for us.
We eat these dipped into various sauces, including some home-made nose-tingling wasabi, and also wrap them in lettuce and cabbage leaves making for wonderful parcels of pure flavour. This is definitely the way to eat good steak.
While we’re busy on these treats, elegant wooden boxes are being stacked on a table gas burner that’s heating a pan of stock. These boxes are the Pyeonbaek.
They’re made from Japanese wood which imparts, so we are told, a delicate flavour to everything being steamed within. We get to glimpse inside the boxes before the action starts and one of them looks like the fresh fish counter in Harrods – packed with giant prawns, mussels, crayfish and scallops.
The other has vegetables, exotic mushrooms waffer-thin beef brisket, some more ribeye, plus bamboo shoots, mushrooms, Lotus root and aubergines. We look at each other and wonder if we can do it all justice.
Just as we mop up the last of the steak, the boxes are done and once more we get to look inside, although my glasses immediately steam up so I can’t see much. When my vision is restored much of the box has been put on our plates and so we dive in with much cracking of shells and slurping.
It’s all good, although I was initially not too confident about the mussels which were a bit grey, but they tasted fine and I had no ill effects. The beef was excellent, the mushrooms rather inclined to hold superheated steam, which painfully caught me out, and some of the aubergine slices and other veg were not quite cooked, but these were small niggles.. Dipping sauces of sesame, and the restaurant’s own sweet chilli sauce, all helped things along.
At this point we were about ready to throw in the towel and retire back to the office sofas, but no chance. The stock that has been steaming now has vegetables and Korean wheat noodles put in, as well as some spicy mala shabu shabu seasoning. The noodles cook in no time and we load our bowls.
We don’t make serious inroads, we are stuffed. I do like the spice, although it’s a bit too restrained for my taste. The stock also decorates my shirt nicely, and burns my chin, but that’s on me and my chopstick skills and not the restaurant.
A simple cup of sweet orange tea is a novel, but effective, dessert.
We liked Chungdam, the DIY nature would a good idea as an ice-breaker for a first date, if your date is relaxed and fun-loving that is, and for a group it’s ideal because everyone gets to muck in and eat as much, or as little, as they want of the various ingredients.
35-36 Greek St, London W1D 5DL