Fire without smoke
Koba is a popular, moderately priced and casually pristine Korean restaurant in Fitzrovia. To me, the reason that distinctly sets this little place apart from other Korean hubs – most notably those on St Giles High Street – is not its food but its most effective smoke extracting system. While I usually don’t mind being fumed with meaty fragrance or splashed a little with kimchi stew, a few of my friends do. They will dress down for the “smelly” occasion, even.
The cooking at Koba, with a level of refinement that reflected its sanitary ambiance, remains authentic. Namul (£5.90) was a very decent assortment of crunchy vegetables lightly tossed in sesame oil. Japchae – potato glass noodle stir fried with soy sauce, mushrooms, red peppers, onions and chives – (£6.90) was also pleasant. I liked the elasticity from the noodle but found the dish overall a little over-peppered. Bo Ssam – pork belly slices with ssamjang paste and vegetable wrap – (£9.50) was flawed in its construction. I was not keen on the soy sauce braised pork belly and preferred the simply broiled and sliced version at Po Cha (or anywhere else) for its neutral porky taste; the garnish of lightly pickled cabbage leaves would have been okay by themselves. However, as this was a “ssam” dish (meaning “wrap”) and everything needed to be assembled together for eating, the taste of the pork and the cabbage leaves together with the ssamjang paste became immensely overwhelming. Korean Fried Chicken (£7.50) fared much better. The soy sauce glaze burst umami-ed sweetness; the batter was light and shattered nicely. Also lovable was Ddukboki – Korean rice cake dry-braised with loosened ssamjung paste, fish cakes and quail eggs – (£8.20). The sweet gummy rice cakes balanced the chilli heat off very nicely. As I was last in Koba with non-beef eater friends, I only tried their pork and chicken barbecue. Samgyupsal (£8.70) featured a platter of good quality pork belly slices and tasted accordingly. The same could be said for Daeji Bulgogi – spicy pork belly slices – (£8.90), though its fiery marinate made the dish more memorable. We were unanimous that Dak Bulgogi – spicy chicken – (£8.50) was the best of the barbecue we ordered. We found the chicken thighs succulent and tender. They were also carefully boned for an adequate girth to counter the strong marinate. Dolsot Bibimbab (£7.50) arriving with a soup (as set lunch) did not wow us. I found the rice nearly too wet and the stone bowl not hot enough to create occasional crust on the grains. We were also given another bowl of steamed rice to go with Kimchi Jjigae Lunch Set (£7.20). Surprisingly enough, the same “nearly wet” rice tasted brilliantly on its own (as opposed to being smothered with chilli sauce in a heated stone bowl). The Jjigae – kimchi hot pot – was also a tour de force. It was bouillabaisse-like and rich to the point it became velvety, oozing perfect tang and heat. It was, in short, a thoroughly pleasant meal.
11 Rathbone Street