It’s Korean-ish BBQ with a dash of Mexican. Sort of.
Around Christmas/New Years time I usually got a small shovel-load of emails asking me to predict what the restaurant trends for the coming year will be. Putting aside my view that being so beholden to the trends of the day is a sign of a weak mind with no individuality or taste of your own, my answer is usually ‘I don’t know’. If I was prescient and smart enough to spot the next blockbuster eating out trend before it happened, I’d invest in it like crazy and then retire to my beachside winter home in Bora Bora where I can macerate myself in a hot tub of raclette.
If I had to stick my neck out though, then I’d wager that Korean and Thai barbecue will become increasingly popular in London. Boldly flavoured meat with a tinge of exoticism are bound to be crowd pleasers. Bo Drake in Soho tries to set itself apart by taking Korean barbecue and then mixing and matching it with culinary influences from all over – including a touch of Mexico, due to the Mexican heritage of the head chef. Bo Drake isn’t the roaring, unmitigated success I hoped it would be though.
First things first
Bo Drake isn’t very large. Including the seats at the bar, the narrow dining room only has around two dozen covers or so. Reservations aren’t taken, but Gym Bunny and I didn’t have any trouble snagging a table on a weekday evening. Bo Drake has its own version of gua bao, but London’s best Taiwanese bun eateries don’t have anything to worry about here. The rice flour buns had a curious but nonetheless pleasing maltiness. They were flat rather than pillowy though, while the thin, meagre slices of beef brisket were bland and uninteresting. The dominant flavour came from the small daubing of creamy mayo.
Bo Drake’s kimchi wasn’t quite as good as the fermented cabbage from Jin Go Gae or Jinjuu, but it was still pleasingly tart and sour. The same couldn’t be said of the pickled daikon radish which wasn’t as crisp and tart as I would’ve liked but it’s good enough as an idle snack while you wait for the big hitters to arrive.
I’m not a huge fan of quesadillas, but I was willing to give Bo Drake’s take on this Mexican classic a try – especially when cheese and kimchi are involved. Dreams of a tart, sour, oozingly creamy indulgence were dashed by the appearance of baked tortillas filled with uninspiring cheese and kimchi drained of nearly all its flavour. The other fusion-ish starter, a mushroom tostada, was only marginally better. The crunchy, nutty fried tortilla base obscured the taste of the taut, slippery, buttery enoki served on top.
The smoked spare ribs had a small pink smoke ring, but the initial hit of oddly artificial smokiness subsided quickly. The relatively moist meat had a mildly woody taste, but it was a little too subtle for its own good and there wasn’t nearly enough fat go around.
I wasn’t expecting much from Gym Bunny’s choice of baby chicken, but it turned out to be the highlight of this first meal. Although you get no more than half of the bird, the meat was moist, tender and lacquered with delightfully crisp skin. The strong charred smokiness of the meat was emphasised by the creamy mayo which also had the added tartness of kimchi. The skilful combination of taste and texture was superlative.
The taro ‘chips’ were thin, very light and not too oily. They weren’t dramatically different from standard potato crisps, but were still pleasing enough in their own right. I couldn’t discern much of the promised soy and yuzu in the roasted asparagus, but the green spears themselves were expertly cooked giving them a texture that was just right – tender on the inside but with a firm bite on the outside.
Small cauliflower florets had a mildly bitter flavour and were paired with a moderately earthy mushroom cream, but the flavours weren’t as bold and satisfying as they were in the somewhat similar cauliflower dish from The Manor in Clapham.
There only ever appears to be one dessert at Bo Drake – soft serve ice cream. It wasn’t face-numbingly cold and, on this occasion, was served with a generous drizzling of roasted sesame oil. The smoky nuttiness of the oil and the cool, whipped softness of the ice cream really hit the spot – so much so that Gym Bunny continued to suffer from sesame seed-flavoured burps for hours afterwards.
Going back for seconds
Returning to Bo Drake with Youngling taking Gym Bunny’s place meant retrying the brisket gua bao, but it was just as underwhelming as it was before. The pickled cucumber was much like the pickled daikon – not nearly as tart and vinegarish as I would have liked.
Although the meat on the lamb cutlets were lacking in earthiness, its texture was superb – tender and gently elastic. It was the sauce that really made this dish though – the sweet, nutty flavour of the mildly thick sauce sticks in my mind almost as much as it stuck to my lips.
Although the pulled pork was too soft and only very mildly smoky, it was still very palatable as it was served ssam-style. Wrap the meat yourself in lettuce and then daub it with kimchi and gochujang. The fermented nuttiness of the latter, a soybean-based sauce, and the tartness of the kimchi complimented the smokiness and meatiness of the pork surprisingly well. A more accomplished pork product would’ve made this dish even better.
A small selection of specials is often available and they’re worth trying. Youngling wasn’t convinced by the monkfish, but I enjoyed the firm bite and delicate lobster-like milkiness of this hunk of fish. The weird rice cracker fragments, tasteless samphire and the singular deep-fried, bread crumb coated oyster all seemed really out of place though and totally unnecessary. The only accompaniment I wished there was more of was the singular roasted oyster mushroom – thick, slippery and meaty.
Bo Drake’s sliced onglet steak isn’t the best example of this cut of beef. It’s somewhat lacking in character, but it’s still tender with a slight chewiness. The garlic-infused soy sauce was highly reminiscent of the red wine sauces that accompany steaks in more Western restaurants, while the crispy, fried bits of golden beetroot resembled fried shallots. Although hardly unmissable, this dish is worth having if it’s on and you’re ravenous.
The same soft serve ice cream was on for dessert, but dressed this time with popping candy rather than roasted sesame seed oil. The sharp fizzing sweetness of the candy was not only a perfect match for the ice cream, but also instantly took me back to my misspent childhood where I whittled away my youth getting tanked up on sherbets behind the bike sheds.
Bo Drake has a lot of promise. If every dish was like the baby chicken or the lamb cutlets, then I would have no hesitation in recommending it unconditionally. As it stands though many of the dishes, from the pork ssam and the asparagus to the monkfish and the onglet, need just a little more push to go from merely good to being simply unmissable. Bo Drake is easier to get into than Smoking Goat, but that Thai-ish barbecue joint is just streets ahead when it comes to smoky, meaty soul-soothing satisfaction.
What to order: Baby chicken; kimchi; ice cream
What to skip: Mushroom tostada; kimchi quesadilla
Name: Bo Drake
Address: 6 Greek Street, Soho, London W1D 4DE
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 18.00-23.00.
Reservations: not taken
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £37-47 approx.