Korean food goes underground
If you’re navigationally inept (cough, LeChuck, cough), then you may not want to wander too far from Tube stations and familiar landmarks to fill your belly. If that’s the case, then Asadal may be just the ticket – this Korean restaurant is located literally right next door to Holborn Tube station. It’s literally underground too, so you’d better not be fond of sunlight and singing birds.
Joining me for a night of Korean noms was Baron Greenback who wasn’t impressed with what he thought was slightly retro decor, although I thought that was slightly harsh. The dimly lit, wood panelled decor may not be especially original, but it is attractive. The service left something to be desired though – our waiters varied from brusque to morose and sullen. At the time of writing, Asadal is one of only three restaurants where I’ve been asked to stop taking photos. As you can tell, I politely disregarded that request.
I am almost physically incapable of eating in a Korean restaurant without slurping up kimchee. Asadal’s version of this classic pickled cabbage dish was more garlicky than numbingly spicy though. I prefer numbingly spicy, but Baron Greenback prefers inoffensively bland so he stayed away from the stuff entirely.
I couldn’t tempt Baron Greenback with any yuk hwae either. This dish of raw beef is superficially similar to steak tartare, but the strands of beef are thinner and more separated from each other. There aren’t any capers or raw eggs either. Instead you get a salty dressing and sweet julienned pears which contrasted nicely with each other. Annoyingly, the excessively chilled beef didn’t have much flavour or character. Disappointing.
I finally managed to convince Greenback to taste some of the pa jeon, a seafood-filled pancake, even though he’s not usually fond of seafood. The pancakes were a bit doughy and chewy, but dunking them in the soy dipping sauce made them more palatable. There was a minimal amount of oysters, mussels, squid and prawns though and what little seafood was present was far too greasy. I wasn’t expecting an overflowing abundance of seafood in a £9 dish, but the quality of what was there left me underwhelmed.
We both tucked into the fried tofu which had a crisp and doughy exterior, but a soft and quivering interior. Simple but pleasing.
There are certain words that jump out at me from a menu and four of them are ‘whole stuffed baby chicken’. It’s not a roast though – the chicken is stuffed with rice, dates, ginseng, chestnuts and garlic and then boiled in broth. The whole chicken gives the broth a very hearty, bold and meaty taste, but it has more to it than that though. It has a subtle sweetness courtesy of the dates, while the chestnuts and the garlic gives it a sharp edge that slowly emerges and becomes stronger the more you eat. Having said that, it would work better in a smaller portion – the taste isn’t quite layered and interesting enough for such a big portion to maintain my interest. Still worth a taste though.
Asadal’s big thing is Korean-style barbecue, although don’t expect any charcoal embers – a gas-fuelled grill is set into the centre of most tables. Neither gas nor charcoal would improve the pork belly though – it’s not fatty enough and half the taste of good pork belly comes from sumptuous streaks of tenderised, melted fat. It was livened up somewhat by the dipping sauces – the slightly spicy bean-based sauce was my favourite.
The beef short rib was far better – the tender and moist strips of marinated meat were tangy, especially when dipped in that spicy bean sauce.
Baron Greenback wasn’t in the mood for dessert, but I was. The bean snowball sounds like a viciously icy projectile constructed by mean children, but it’s actually a dessert of fruit and red bean paste mixed into ice. The use of what I strongly suspect was canned fruit left me unimpressed to say the least, but the dish was saved by the red bean paste which was a surprise as I was expecting to dislike that part. It added an addictive malt-like taste to the dish. Still, canned fruit? Really?
Although Baron Greenback isn’t a teetotaler like me, he doesn’t imbibe much alcohol either and was content to sip on the cinnamon punch. Although quite watery, it is very pungent and does have the distinct taste of cinnamon.
The watery rice punch was quite peculiar too, resembling a cross between soya milk and calpico, a watery and mildly acidic Japanese milk drink. It was peculiar in a good way though and was quite refreshing.
For a restaurant that’s been going since 2005, Asadal has either fallen into a funk or really needs to get a handle on consistency – the food veered from underwhelming to heartily satisfying and navigating the large menu to find the latter could be daunting for Korean food novices.
In short, the menu is need of a revamp to get rid of the duff dishes and the service needs to be given with a smile (a Glasgow smile would do in a pinch). Unless the nearby Kimchee right around the corner is full (or if you can’t bring yourself to walk such an epic distance, cough, Kangaroo Face, cough), there are few reasons to visit Asadal until they get their house in order.
Address: 227 High Holborn, London, WC1V 7DA
Phone: 0207 430 9006
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 18.00-23.00. Sunday 18.00-22.30.
Reservations: highly recommended.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks shared between two people: £42 approx.