Kimchee Holborn is the latest Korean restaurant to make a splash in London. It opened in April this year and seems to have been busy ever since.
There are many things which mark it out from the crowd. Here’s a few of them:
- Décor: They’ve spent lots of money on the look and feel of the place. Goryeo-style celadon and a Joseon-style moon vase are displayed in stands by the serving counter; the geometric frame design of the walls and the lighting, which to an uneducated eye give more of a Japanese feeling than a Korean, are certainly streets ahead of the utilitarian décor of your average Korean restaurant in London. In this regard Kimchee’s only real competitor is Asadal, a couple of hundred yards away. From a distance the tables look as if you have to share a big communal bench with your neighbour, Wagamama-style, but while the tables themselves stretch the width of the restaurant, the benches are more individually tailored. And the dark walnut colour of the wood gives a sophisticated feel that you don’t get at the ubiquitous student-friendly noodle canteen chain.
- Table settings: those who don’t like the fiddly metal chopsticks you get in most Korean restaurants will be pleased that this restaurant uses disposable wooden chopsticks. In an interesting twist, beer glasses are made of earthenware pottery. The pottery has a Japanese feel to it rather than Korean, but who worries about such things? Rice is also brought in an earthenware rather than stainless steel pot, and your main plate too is a dainty earthenware bowl.
- Staff: There are lots of waiting staff, and the first time I went I didn’t spot a Korean among them, though the second time I went there was clearly a Korean in charge. In the kitchens, there may have been one or two Koreans, but predominantly you could have been looking at any restaurant kitchen in London for the range of ethnicities.
- Training: What? Training? Yes, the waiting staff go through training in a restaurant site in Golders Green before starting in the Holborn location. For an experienced eater of Korean food I should imagine you don’t need the staff to have much training. But I’m sure a newbie would appreciate a bit of education in what they are about to eat from knowledgeable serving staff. Too many family-run Korean restaurants seem to be run for the sake of the staff rather than the customer. You feel you’re intruding into a private club when you enter, as you see the boss’s son sitting at a table in the back chatting to his mates. At Kimchee the staff are there to serve you rather than talk to each other.
- Fun: What other Korean restaurant offers you soju and makgeolli1 cocktails, along with a full range of unadorned Korean liquors such as bokpunja and bekseju, with helpful translations explaining what they are? But like most Korean restaurants they also serve Japanese beer, which is sensible given the poor quality of Korean beer.
- Menu: Yes, it’s reasonably comprehensive. And where necessary the menu items have their Korean names (after all, how do you translate bibimbap into English?). But wherever possible they are given an English translation.
So far, so good. So what about the most important thing – the food?
- Food: No real complaints, but those who want the authentic experience should try here first, build up their confidence, and then explore some of the Korean-run restaurants while still retaining Kimchee on their list of familiar venues. Possibly the most obvious point is that there is no tabletop barbecue. You can respect that decision – it makes things so much easier for the staff, and is a sensible health and safety compromise. After all, hardly any London Korean restaurants have genuine charcoal barbecues, and how many times have you bruised your knees on the under-the-table ducting for the built-in gas-fired ones? My samgyeopsal came with a strange sweet mustard dipping sauce. It worked OK, but it’s not what I normally expect with samgyeopsal. The vegetarian jjigae came with an authentic doenjang taste.
- Service: again, no real complaints, although the food arrived in a more random order than you would normally expect. If you’ve ever been to Wagamama’s you’ll be familiar with the concept of being brought the food as soon as the kitchen happens to have cooked it. Yes, people will tell me that in a Korean meal you’re meant to have everything all at once. But I’m used to having my mandu and pajeon first, then the barbecue, and finally the jjigae – with there being a 50% overlap between each course. Here, the order things arrived were: pajeon, jjigae, mandu, samgyeopsal, rice, bibimbap. Although the jjigae was piping hot when it arrived, it was getting tepid by the time the samgyeopsal was consumed. And of course because the samgyeopsal was precooked in the kitchen, that got cold too.
If all this sounds like I won’t be going back, that’s not true. It’s a Korean restaurant which is Western-friendly in a way that no other Korean restaurant in London is. If you feel intimidated by Korean food, this place, along with Bibimbap Soho, are easy ways in, and will enable you to initiate your friends too. My Korean host who took me there had the same view.
Kimchee is owned by the same Korean company that runs the Wasabi chain of Japanese sushi / curry takeaways in London. This might explains the greater commercial mindset behind this venture – complete with corporate logo. It’s a formula which could spread, and it is rumoured that there are plans to open five more outlets across London, with the next one opening in the Victoria area at the end of this year or the beginning of next.
There are also rumours among the Korean community that this restaurant has Korean government money behind it. If so, the cash has been well-spent. It has the chance of popularising Korean food in a way that family-owned restaurants cannot.
- Yes, they spell it in the official Ministry of Culture approved way!