Apero, Bibigo; London
The connection between a new hotel with excellent desserts and patisserie, Arsenal football club and the first modern central London restaurant specialising in Korean food may not be an obvious one. But this is the story of my journey between these seemingly disparate establishments.
It all began at Apero in the basement of the recently opened Ampersand Hotel near South Kensington Tube station. I noticed a smiling female pastry chef carrying plates of pistachio and olive cake with griotte cherries and a saffron panna cotta with nectarines and honey to adjacent tables. They tasted as good as they looked.
On the way out, I bumped into the hotel’s general manager Roberto Pajares (son of Ramon, formerly GM of the Four Seasons and The Savoy) and asked him who this intriguing pastry chef was. “Come and meet Ji-Sun,” he replied with pride and led me over to the counter.
Here were laid out plates of salted peanut butter florentines; strawberry meringues; coconut financiers; a peach and raspberry tart; macaroons of many flavours; and some tangy lemon profiteroles. And just to the left, carrying a plate of scones for that afternoon’s tea service, was Ji-Sun Shin herself.
Happily, Shin had some time to spare in her busy schedule, so she was able to begin the tale that was to take me from her desserts to a taste of bulgogi, the spicy, marinated Korean beef that she and her sister, Mi-Sun, serve to Arsenal supporters before a home match. And from there, to Bibigo restaurant, which CJ Group, Korea’s biggest food company, has just opened in Soho.
My interest was piqued from the outset and not just because of my memories of eating out in Seoul two years ago. For perhaps even longer, many in the restaurant industry have talked of Korean food as “the next big thing”, the even hotter sequel to Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese food. Korean restaurants have, by contrast, stayed within a small radius of where Koreans live and work, such as New Malden, Surrey, in the UK and Koreatown in Los Angeles.
When not working as a pastry chef, Shin teams up with her sister to introduce bulgogi to Arsenal fans. When they moved close to the Emirates stadium and noticed their Jamaican neighbours preparing and selling jerk chicken before each game, they decided to follow their example Korean style.
They marinate large pieces of feather blade beef (from the shoulder, so it has lots of flavour) for 24 hours in sesame oil, fruit purée and beer, then cook it slowly, slice it thinly and, somewhat less authentically but to enable it be enjoyed on the hoof, pack it into a baguette, serving it from the front of their house.
This interpretation of a household Korean dish has proved so popular that the Shin sisters are selling 500 portions before every game at £4 each. They have such a loyal following that they only hear vociferous complaints whenever the football season draws to a close. But for those with a penchant for this style of cooking, the new Bibigo will come as an exciting addition to the London scene.
Bibigo stands on the site of the former, and rather gloomy, Ran Korean restaurant. Bibigo is much lighter, and a large window gives a view into the kitchen.
While the cooking style does involve certain concessions to a western penchant for food that is less hot and spicy than the Korean norm, the dishes still pack a punch. Among the starters at Bibigo this was particularly true of a dish that combined tofu, diced pork belly and beansprouts and another of squid with okra and fried crushed garlic, while prawn dumplings with pea shoots and chilli soy dressing were considerably milder. A rendition of the bibimbap, rice topped with beef or tofu, was excellent, as was the sweet, slow-cooked beef ribs with daikon, shallots and chestnuts that packed lots of unctuous flavours.
Service was a combination of Korean deference overlaid by French professionalism supplied by an enthusiastic manager from Alsace, who fell for Korean food after falling for his Korean girlfriend. He has also compiled a wine list of note, although confessed it is a challenge to please western palates in search of gentler tastes and the Korean penchant for stronger flavours. But this is a difference in taste worth exploring.
The Ampersand Hotel,
10 Harrington Road, London SW7,
020 7589 5895. www.ampersandhotel.com
58 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F,
020 7042 5225. www.bibigouk.com