The last time I ate in the rooftop restaurant in the London Hilton was nearly thirty years ago, and somebody else was paying. It was very good, but since then much has changed. In 2006 the space was taken over by Chris Galvin (ex Orrery, Wolseley), and the establishment got a Michelin star in 2009. And the particular interest for LKL is that its head chef is Korean-born Joo Won, who worked his way up through the ranks in the kitchen there and reached the top spot in 2013.
Since then, Korean elements have been making their way into the modern French haute cuisine menu. On a brief visit to the kitchens after our dinner we found Won plating up one of his creations: a kimchi risotto, which looked superbly appetising.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself. The reason for my return visit, nearly 30 years after my last, was to sample Chef Joo Won’s August special: a seven course Korean tasting menu. And this time I was paying (not cheap, at £110 excluding drinks and service). Earlier this year Chef Joo Won had taken Galvin and general manager Fred Sirieix to Korea for a few days to introduce them to some of Korea’s exciting flavours. The trip gave them the confidence to try an ambitious experiment, a menu whose every dish contains Korean influences and flavours. Even more ambitiously, they were running it alongside all the regular menus at the restaurant, something which must have introduced extra challenges in the kitchen.
And what does an haute cuisine Korean tasting menu look like? Like this:
This is not an attempt to recreate Korean food in a posh restaurant. It’s an exercise in introducing traditional Korean flavours and techniques into a French style of cooking. And while some of the ingredients will be familiar to a chef in a Korean kitchen, others will not. A beautifully cooked fillet of Iberico pork, nice and pink in the middle, was the star of the bossam dish, rather than the more traditional steamed pork belly, while in the same dish the condiments were less pungent than you might find in a Korean eatery; instead of the kimchi there were two dressings, a darker one for the meat, and a slightly more tart, fresh-tasting one for the salad, the chilli, citrus and sesame flavours complementing each other.
Similarly, halibut is not a fish you find too often on a Korean menu but, served on a bed of accompaniments which included dried shrimp in a gochujang sauce with a hint of sweetness, this was a splendid fusion of Europe and Asian cooking.
Starting the menu with a rice porridge, which can often taste rather bland, was an interesting choice, but this was nicely seasoned with plenty of different textures to provide interest: soft tofu, slightly chewy mushrooms, a small meatball and perhaps some tiny strips of dried seaweed to add a judicious amount of saltiness worked very well together.
And the second course, raw clams on a bed of quinoa with pear and sesame was a good variation on the flavours more commonly found with yukhoe. It was really interesting to have those seasonings combined with seafood rather than raw beef.
Galbi jjim is not something I would normally go for on a menu as I find the richness and sweetness of the flavours almost overpowering: I always need plenty of kimchi to stop the dish cloying in my mouth. The tasting menu’s beef dish was inspired by those rich, royal tastes of galbi jjim, and the beef melted in the mouth, the dark sauce almost chocolatey in texture. The dried anchovy with the potato, and the fresh white kimchi provided great contrast, but I needed slightly more of it to see me through the richness of the beef. Instead, pulling in the opposite direction and complementing the warm, comfort-food flavours of the meat was a superbly chosen Médoc which somehow made all the components of the dish work together.
I’m not much of a fan of ginseng or honey either, but those two flavours worked spectacularly well with the saltiness of the blue cheese, together with the blue cheese ice cream and fig in the next course – and it was only after I had eaten it that I realised that this was the cheese course. On paper, this was the dish that looked least promising, but in retrospect it’s the one that I most want to revisit, to re-experience the combinations of flavours and textures – smooth ice-cream, creamy-crumbly cheese and crispy bisuit, and the saltiness and sweetness of its individual components – and to come across ginseng again in such an unusual environment.
The dessert was a beautifully light herbal sponge, complemented by a red bean cream and black rice ice cream. The dish was best eaten with all three elements on the spoon at once: on its own the red bean cream was rather rich and needed to be lightened with the ice cream; but together the ingredients brought the menu to a satisfying close.
In advance, I had been wondering what alcohol was going to be recommended to go with the food. I was secretly dreading them trying to push some upscale soju. I much prefer the cheaper stuff, finding the expensive Hwayo and Andong sojus too oily, and so was preparing myself to stick to the water. But the menu included some recommended wines of a conventional variety – though the opening cocktail was a refreshing soju sour – and it was interesting to experience the combination of flavours designed to complement each other. As you might expect with such an establishment, the service was impeccable, and the sommelier introduced the wine pairings in such a way as to enable you to appreciate the complementary flavours. Most interesting was the description of the baekseju, which went with the fish dish, which was described as a “cross between vermouth and sake”. It did actually work rather well.
Was it all worth it? Other people my age might give the cash to their teenage daughter for a “hi-touch” ticket to see hip-hop band Topp Dogg (£119, plus glo-sticks, other fan accessories and refreshments), or blow it on a decent seat at the opera. Set in that context, £110 plus drinks and service was absolutely worth it. There’s more than one way to experience Korean flavours, and introducing them into a French-style establishment is an imaginative experiment – one which for me works superbly well.
Chef Joo Won’s Korean Tasting Menu was at Galvin at Windows during August 2015.