Chancery Lane vs New Malden
Update 22/2/2015 – added extra comment about the weird booze at Jin Go Gae
Every restaurant needs a hook (or, if you’re uncharitable, a gimmick) to stand out in London’s dizzying eating out market. Kintan claims to be the first Japanese barbecue (‘yakiniku-style’) restaurant in the capital. While technically true, as far as I can tell, that’s not quite the whole truth. Japanese barbecue is very closely related to its forebear, Korean barbecue, and there are plenty of Korean barbecue restaurants in London.
To adequately review Kintan, I therefore felt compelled to also try out the Korean competition in the form of Jin Go Gae. Although located in the wilds of New Malden, London’s traditional Korean enclave and far from Kintan’s convenient Chancery Lane location, it’s highly regarded. While the central grilled meat dishes were broadly similar, many of the ancillary dishes were quite different. The surroundings were different too – Kintan’s two-floor dining space is a lot larger and more lavishly decorated than Jin Go Gae’s small, L-shaped dining room.
Although a tad slow and inattentive at times, Jin Go Gae’s staff were still sprightlier than Kintan’s waiters. On the second of my two visits to Chancery Lane, service was infuriatingly slow. Merely getting the menu took a finger-drumming 15 minutes. Both teams were a little brusque.
Despite all the barbecuing going on, there’s no need to worry about smoke inhalation at either restaurant – clever ventilation systems are built into the grills. The grills themselves are embedded into every table. At Kintan you cook the meat yourself over what appears to be an electric grill. Jin Go Gae uses a charcoal-powered table grill instead, with the meat-flipping handled by the waiting staff.
The tuna tartar volcano was not what I expected at all. Clumpy, slightly stodgy rice balls were topped with what was effectively tuna mayo sandwich filler pepped up with some crisp spring onions. This sort of thing would’ve been acceptable as a sandwich alternative from the chiller cabinets at Itsu, but not for £7 in a sit-down restaurant.
The hot-oil seared salmon was better. Thin yet meaty, the fish was lightly cooked and complimented well by a dressing of nutty oil.
Garlic-fried udon-style noodles were indeed suitably garlicky, although I couldn’t tell if the bitty flecks dotted throughout were pork, seitan or a mixture of the two.
Cooking your own meat in a restaurant not only feels slightly ghetto, but also slightly cheeky at these prices. Still, it has a certain charm if you’re out on a raucous night out with your mates. The barbecued meat turned out surprisingly well, in spite of the electric grill. The thinly sliced skirt steak was tender and mildly buttery, due in part to the streaks of marbled fat. The slices of ‘premium’ kalbi beef short rib was also a winner. While also tender, it was the glaze that stole the show here – fruity sweet and mildly nutty.
As expected the vegetable selection is substantially smaller than the carnivorous options. The mushroom medley consisted of some enoki and shiitake, but the majority of it was bog standard filler ‘shrooms. The sharp, acidic taste won’t suit everyone, but I found it enjoyable in small doses.
There was little to like about the mochi ice creams. The sesame, green tea and salted caramel flavours were barely present while the skins were too soft and thin.
Kintan, one last time
Kintan’s chicken karaage was insultingly bad. Four small nuggets of mushy, overly tendersied chicken coated in thin, soft, inconsequential batter. Just plain dreadful.
If the portion of chicken karaage was meagre, the bowl of ‘spicy addicting’ cabbage was overflowing with the cheap vegetable filler. The very mild spice and nutty flavour of the dressing wasn’t bad, but it was very transient and far from addictive.
The ‘sukiyaki bibimbap’ was curiously named as the soup that helps define sukiyaki was entirely missing here. It was instead much closer to a straight-up Korean-style bibimbap – rice and egg stirred together in a hot stone bowl along with meagre strips of tender, thinly sliced beef. The only thing that saved this bland and uninspiring dish was the moderately spicy fermented soy bean sauce served on the side.
Thankfully, the barbecued meats saved this second meal from utter mediocrity. The portion of king prawns (just three) may have been small, but each crustacean was perfectly formed – firm, fresh and juicy. The ‘spicy’ pork kalbi wasn’t spicy at all and the fruity nuttiness of its glaze greatly resembled the glaze of the beef kalbi from my first meal. In fact, the two were so dependent on the glaze for taste that I suspected a mix-up with my order at first.
The Kintan ice cream apparently partners vanilla ice cream with brown sugar syrup and soybean flour, but the resulting flavours greatly resembles caramel and honey respectively. That was all fine and dandy, if somewhat disappointing given the richer depth of flavour I was expecting, but the crunchy ice crystals and bland taste of the ice cream itself was just plain dismal.
Jin Go Gae
While I dined at Kintan by myself, I had the help of Happy Buddha, Veal Smasher and The Lensman when eating at Jin Go Gae. All three greatly enjoy their drink and aren’t afraid to try the odd Korean tipple or two. Happy Buddha found the Makgeolli, a rice-based drink, quite malty while The Lensman likened it to a sake, but less sweet. Veal Smasher chuckled as he downed it, describing it as a fizzy alcoholic skimmed milk. Veal Smasher was both perplexed and greatly amused by the bok-boonja, described on the menu as a blackcurrant wine, that apparently started off like a boozy Ribena before ending on a tart note tasting like malt vinegar (there is some debate amongst my dining companions whether it was the bok-boonja they imbibed or the hong cho, a vinegar drink, mixed with shochu – as there is some alcohol-induced uncertainty, I’ve left the original sentence in place – TPG, 22/2/2015).
All three of my dining companions left the ordering in my hands. We started off with the yuk whe, a Korean steak tartare that’s served here partially frozen. This helped emphasise the fattiness of the thin, tender strips of beef but the crisp iciness won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’d also have preferred the julienned pear to have been crisper and sweeter.
No Korean meal is complete without kimchi and Jin Go Gae’s cut cabbage and daikon radish versions are the best I’ve had in London – relentlessly tart, spicy, sour and salty. Perfect.
Heretically, Happy Buddha doesn’t care for dumplings. This just left more for the rest of us to devour though – the beef dumplings here are especially good. The skins are crisp on one side while soft and supple on the other, while a thin underlayer immediately beneath the surface was surprisingly fluffy. The minced beef filling was peppery and suitably meaty. Very satisfying indeed.
Happy Buddha was much more enamoured with the par jeon. This savoury pancake, sliced into pieces easily graspable with your chopsticks, was soft and fluffy yet just stiff enough not to be floppy. Free from excess oil, it was stuffed full of firm squid and crisp spring onions. Splendid.
In my haste, I ordered the Kan Poon-gi without properly reading the item description. It’s bog-standard sweet and sour chicken with the same day-glo colour and sickly sweetness that I’ve come to despise, but here I have no one to blame but myself.
The highlight was of course the barbecued meats. The king prawns were fresh and firm. We weren’t expecting much from the beef tongue, but the surprisingly dense heartiness of the thinly sliced tongue was very satisfying. Even better was the Kalbi beef short rib – tender, mildly fatty with a hint of nutty marinade and a subtly elastic, yielding bite that was a real pleasure to tear apart with my teeth.
The only disappointment was the thin slices of pork belly – bland and over cooked to the point of slightly burnt crispiness.
The spicy seafood noodle soup didn’t contain much in the way of actual seafood with only some scabs of squid, a few mussels and some clams floating around in the soup. The thin, very mildly spicy broth was extremely evocative of the seaside though with its salty moreishness, while the thin udon-style noodles were pleasing enough.
The bulgogi bibimbap was a disappointment. The forgettable selection of vegetables and meagre, bland scraps of beef were poor companions for the rice. Jinjuu’s version was far better.
Although my dining companions loved the duck bulgogi, I struggled to muster much enthusiasm. The unremarkable meat and tame sauce, which was only mildly tart and tangy, left me cold.
Despite its inconsistent service and some decidedly iffy non-barbecue dishes, Kintan is by no means bad. Its barbecued meats are of a generally good quality, but Jin Go Gae is simply streets ahead with far superior meats and, aside from the odd duffer, quality accompaniment dishes too. It’s generally cheaper too. It’s well worth the journey out to south west London – I’d choose New Malden over Chancery Lane any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Name: Jin Go Gae
What to order: Kimchi; Par jeon; Dumplings; Kalbi beef short rib; Beef tongue
What to skip: Pork belly; Duck bulogogi
Address: 270-272 Burlington Road, New Malden, London KT3 4NL
Phone: 020 8949 2506
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday noon-15.00 and 17.30-23.00. Saturday noon-23.00. Sunday 17.00-23.00.
Average cost for one person including drinks: £40-50 approx.
What to order: Skirt steak; garlic fried noodles; premium Kalbi beef short rib
What to skip: Chicken karaage; sukiyaki bibmibap
Address: 34 – 36 High Holborn, London WC1V 6AE
Phone: 020 7242 8076
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday noon-15.00 and 17.00-23.00. Saturday noon-23.00. Sunday noon-22.00.
Reservations: highly recommended; essential for large groups and on or around weekends
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £50-65 approx.