“New Malden,” said Tom Parker Bowles.
“New Malden?!” I said.
“To go to a Korean restaurant – Su La. I’m told it’s the best place in the country for Korean food.”
“Are you sure about this?” I said.
“Absolutely,” he said. “See you at Waterloo.”
Honestly, life is a process of endless discovery. New Malden, it turned out, is one of those London suburbs that might be completely anonymous if it wasn’t for the fact that it is the home to the largest Korean community in Europe. Or so Tom assured me as we trudged up the street from the station, 20 minutes from Waterloo. I could well believe him, because every shop seemed to be a Korean restaurant, Korean hairdresser, Korean travel agent or Korean something.
Su La turned out to be on Kingsway Road, about 10 minutes’ walk from the station, a smart, welcoming, comfortable place rather than over-designed and over-bearing. Forthright charm and exuberance would seem to be the hallmark of the Paek family, who own Su La, an enterprise that embraces father (in the kitchen), mother and daughter, plus friends and other relatives. It adds a distinct, and delightful, texture to the service. Su La has a reputation among those who know about these things for serving the best and most authentic Korean food around. If the number or Koreans lunching there is anything to go by, this must be true.
Now, I won’t pretend to be the world’s greatest expert on Korean food, but past experience has led me to expect fearsome amounts of garlic, a certain amount of chilli and oodles of noodles. I was right on two out of three. There wasn’t nearly as much garlic as I had expected.
There is, apparently, an elite form of Korean cookery, a kind of kaiseki, which is for royalty and nobs. Tom had eaten it in Korea. This high-end stuff is not on display at Su La. What you get here is food that has certain affinities with Japanese and Chinese cooking, but that is utterly different from either. It’s what you might call slam-bam food. It doesn’t mess about. The flavours bang and boom. There is chilli, but it’s used to point up flavour, not to intimidate the taste buds. There are lighter, tangier elements, too. But, generally, it’s jolly, rollicking, robust stuff, involving a lot of slurping: soup, hot and cold noodles, yukoe – slivers of raw beef and pear made slurpable by having raw egg stirred in. I like slurping. Slurping breaks down barriers. It’s difficult to be refined when you’re slurping, particularly if you’re using Korean chopsticks, which take a bit of getting used to. They’re metal and flat, rather than round, and call for advanced chopstick technique, at which Tom was more adept than I was.
And then there are the non-slurping dishes: pa-jeun, a seafood and spring onion pancake, which has about it something of the thin omelette and something of Yorkshire pudding batter, soft and squidgy beneath a thin, light, crisp veneer; and gal-bi, marinated beef ribs cut up with scissors and grilled over a charcoal barbecue set into the middle of the table. You place charred nuggets of beef on to pristine lettuce leaves, then dab on top a splash of a well-rounded chilli paste and a few slices of seared spring onion cut as thins as threads and mixed with a sweet-and-sour dressing. Roll over the sides of the lettuce leaf to form a mouthful-sized parcel, and pop it into your mouth. You have rarely seen so much animal disappear so quickly in such reverent silence.
We were hitting full stride by now. A soup with black pudding, liver and tongue arrived for me, looking murky and a little intimidating, but which turned out to be surprisingly restrained, a beautifully balanced affair, with a light, refreshing bite of vinegar. There was nothing restrained about pimimbab, a gloriously glutinous mass of rice, more beef, vegetables and a raw egg, mixed quickly with chilli sauce in a searing hot, porous stone bowl. The best bit, Tom said, “is the golden, nutty crust at the bottom where the pimimbab meets the hot bowl”, but he kept it all to himself. And then ground to a halt. Me, too.
We did eat a monumental amount. We were on a voyage of discovery, after all. We drank only tea, which had an agreeable mild sesame aftertaste, but even so the bill came to £66 including 10% service. That is really a piffling sum given the generosity of the helpings, the quality of the dishes and the pleasure of the occasion.
Su La 79-81 Kingston Road, New Malden, Surrey KT3 3PB. Tel: 0208 336 0121