Bi Bim Bap, Soho

Did you read Giles Coren’s review of Mele e Pere last Saturday? No, of course you didn’t. You’re not ‘through the paywall’ are you. Cheapskate.

Well, it was a good one. And not just because he came to the same conclusion about Mele e Pere as I did.

In fact, the really entertaining part was the first third, which (of course) was not about Mele e Pere at all. Instead, Mr Coren (like every other broad sheet reviewer over the last three weeks) half praised, half ranted about the current central London dining trend of no reservations bar stool dining – great because it means he gets his reviews done quickly and then do nothing else for the rest of the week; not great because you can’t book and have to queue. He was particularly vexed having tried to go a restaurant called 10 Greek Street, a new place at, erm, 10 Greek Street in Soho. Problem was, whilst he’d have had to queue if he’d gone in the evening, it’s necessary to book at lunchtime, and he went for lunch and hadn’t booked and, well, you get the idea.

What G-dog could have done, had he not wanted to fill copy with a more substantial and fashionable review, was head straight next door to number 11, where there’s a casual Korean restaurant called Bi Bim Bap. This isn’t the kind of place where you’d book ahead; any wait for a table shouldn’t take long, if there is a wait at all.

I went for lunch yesterday with a couple of classmates from my chef course, including June, who’s from South Korea. Given June is a great Korean cook and she’s told me before that she rocks the bibimbap (one word), I realised her presence at lunch probably gave me the first ever opportunity to write about a restaurant with the benefit of actual knowledge, rather than on the basis of my own personal opinion and general tendancy to bullshit. So I made it my mission to irritate June and ask loads of questions as we ate.

June confirmed that bibimbap is a Korean dish. Phew.

She also confirmed that bibimbap means ‘mixed rice’ and the dish is generally served warm with sautéed vegetables and strips of cooked or raw meat on top. It’s your role as eater to mix the rice, vegetables and meat up.

She said that, as Bi Bim Bap offer, you can have either a cooked or raw egg on top too, but you don’t have to. When June has an egg she usually prefers it raw.

If you eat bibimbap in a restaurant in Korea, it is typically served in a sizzling hot stone bowl, lined with oil, so that a delicious crust forms on the rice thats touching the base as you’re eating. However, the dish is obviously also a great way of using leftovers at home, so is just as typically something served up in a big, non stone pot for the family to pile into.

We had a couple of bowls of kimchee to keep things ticking over whilst I was Paxmaning June. I thought the cabbage was decent, but could have taken more chilli. June said it was good but not great. [Kimchee freaks might be interested to know that it appears we generally eat Chinese style kimchee in London, cos in Korea they keep the cabbage whole through the process and only chop bits off as and when needed before eating. I’ve only seen it having clearly been chopped before the fermenting process.]

June chose Dol sot bibimbap (lots of radish type veg and an egg), which she said was definitely a very traditional way of eating bibimbap. Nora, our Spanish colleague ate a spicy pork one, despite not really liking spice, and I had Bool go gi beef (strips of marinated bbq beef). We all piled in with huge amounts of the gochujang (chilli pepper paste), which I felt was necessary because it was a tiny bit bland otherwise. But June said that she expected to do so anyway, because that’s how they roll. Nora and I also piled in with loads of miso paste because it’s maybe one of the most addictive things ever (after the gochujang). Interestingly (maybe) June didn’t. I’m not sure whether this was because she didn’t like it or it isn’t typical – at this point of the inquisition she’d had enough of my questions and just wanted to eat.

Anyway, Jesus, enough about what June thought. This is my blog and overall I enjoyed my good sized, inexpensive bowl of bibimbap. It’s not an outstanding meal (as, for example, a bowl of udon noodles from Koya almost always is), reason for that being that I felt copious squirts of chilli and miso were definitely necessary and the stone bowls failed to develop as good a crust on the rice as I’ve had elsewhere, which was a disappointment. But then bibimbap it feels to me like basic comfort food that you shouldn’t require or expect too much from and, in fact, the only real criticism of Bi Bim Bap (three words) is that the owners have obviously read or been told that if you have a restaurant in Soho, your lighting should be set as dim as possible. Fine (and yes please) if you’ve got birdcage light bulbs at head height and a buzzing atmosphere. Not if you’ve got recess led lights in high ceilings and grey walls. This is a very easily addressed criticism …

SO, base, I liked Bi Bim Bap. Sure, I would have preferred it if it hadn’t been so dully lit and if that stone bowl had caused more of the rice to stick. But it’s on a par with the likes of Pho or Moolis as somewhere independent and central to grab a decent, filling and well priced lunch or quick evening meal. It’s not one of the trendy places Giles was kind of moaning about, just a simple restaurant in Soho, wanting to sell you food. June was glad we went.

Bi Bim Bap in 3 words

Mix. Sizzle. Chilli.

The Bill

Our bibimbaps were all under £7 for a good size bowl. There are a couple more expensive ones, but still under a tenner. Some noodle and salad mains and sides too. All reasonably priced. – 11 Greek Street, W1D4DJ, 020 7287 3434