When you tuck into your bowl of warming chueotang muddy loach soup, with its tangle of green vegetables, shoots and mysterious fishy bits suspended in a tangy reddish-green-brown broth, the condiment you reach for to give it that extra taste sensation is a liberal sprinkling of sancho powder. The pungent, fragrant taste rounds out a dish that is already perfection.
Tiny clusters of berries from the sancho shrub, which is related to the more familiar Sichuan pepper plant, are an occasional side dish with temple food, maybe served in a light salty soy marinade. The young leaves too, fern-like in shape, are edible, though I have come across them less frequently in a restaurant. Pick at a leaf or two and nibble gently on them as you go for a woodland stroll in the foothills of Jirisan.
I never expect to find fresh sancho served as far north as Seoul. In fact when I first encountered it outside Tongdosa and in Sancheong County, both in South Gyeongsang province, I was told that “northerners” (in which category Seoullites were included) didn’t like the flavour. Maybe there are places in Seoul that have it, but the powder is more common, of course as an accompaniment to chueotang. There’s a good place for the soup (with the powder) in Tongin market to the west of Gyeongbokgung, and I’m sure that Namwon Chueotang behind the Deoksu palace has it, though the only time I went there, around 9 years ago, was before I was initiated into the special delights of the plant, so I didn’t seek it out.
All of which preamble means that I nearly fell out of my very comfortable chair when I came across sancho powder mentioned on the menu of a restaurant in Holland Park, west London. Even more intriguing was what it was seasoning: carrot sorbet.
There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work. Strawberry ice cream with black pepper has been with us for a while. And in fact it worked brilliantly. The sorbet itself, sweet and surprisingly creamy, was given a mysterious taste enhancement by the sparse suggestion of the mountain herb sprinkled on top.
If there had been nothing else decent on the menu I would have gone home very happy. But as it happened there was much else to enjoy. For this was Flat Three, an innovative but comfortable place which describes its cuisine as Japanese and Nordic inspired. There’s a Korean chef in the kitchen, but the team of four is headed by an Aussie and there are plenty of different international influences. The decor is homely Scandinavian in style and the service is both professional and friendly – something which is difficult to achieve.
Other obviously Korean inspired items on the menu were a dish which described itself simply as cabbage, gochujang and noodles, which came across as a gutsy vegetarian lasagna. There were dishes which used miso / doenjang. And, for those who followed the recent “Hottest K-Food in London” event promoted by the Korean embassy, there was the restaurant’s signature dish, poached sea bass with fermented cauliflower – the vegetable purée was given a slightly acidic edge by the fermentation process and was a great complement to the expertly cooked fish.
Another familiar Korean flavour appeared in the imaginative non-alcoholic section of the drinks menu in the form of omija – the “five-flavour berry” which makes a great chilled fruit tea. There was no soju, but two Japanese shochu were available, and it would have been so tempting to overdose on it, but I decided to behave myself. Besides which, from recollection it was around £8 a shot, so it was not a liquor for knocking back as you would your everyday brand of Korea’s favourite spirit.
If there was one downside to the vegetarian tasting menu which I decided on (my better half opted for the non vegetarian option), there was possibly not enough variety in texture – none of the dishes would have challenged your toothless grandmother too much. But there was plenty of variety in flavour, from the rich woodiness of the porcini spring roll starter to the pomegranate in the pudding. And the amuse bouche to start with? A totally amazing potato doughnut.
This is an establishment to which I shall definitely return and explore further: it’s somewhere that is not afraid of experimenting, of asking you to be adventurous. And based on our first experience their imaginative flavour combinations work supremely well.
There are other places which introduce Korean flavours into international dishes – Chef Joo Won at the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows and, at the homelier end of the spectrum, The Petite Corée in West Hampstead. Flat Three is priced between the two, and is a place which feels just right.