Alex Matchett samples head chef Joo Won's 'transcendental' Korean menu in a postcard-picturesque setting.
They have postcards atop the Hilton’s 28th floor to send to your friends and family, presumably to make them jealous of the view. There may be soon be other engines of envy. Head chef Joo Won has made a transcendental Korean menu, showcasing not only his own creative flair but the ability of top restaurants to dance across geographical and culinary borders, bringing new confluences of flavour. And, like all good food, imagining memories in the taste, like the lost music of childhood; reminding us why restaurants make such natural harbours for diasporas.
Won serves up raw Orkney scallops, giving texture for the soy puree and confit of ginger and peanuts to throw a marker down. However the paired cocktail provided as part the ‘degustation deluxe’ menu is the better oriental partner. There’s a strange, almost dour, citrus undertone that keeps it refreshing and hides hints of summer gardens in which the gardener, straightening his back, might wonder if he isn’t momentarily somewhere else – or if it’s just a headrush from the rice wine.
The second course is a crisp salad, functional and utterly unremarkable. The third is seared foie gras, toasted brioche, mushrooms fricassee and kimchi; a phenomenal combination that allows the richness to be humbled by the honest kimchi. It’s an amelioration of flavours that works in such an obvious way you almost don’t trust it. It’s like a parking warden telling you not to worry, he’ll let you off. You’re comforted and annoyed you ever doubted him.
This is true of the next course too: fatty Iberico pork bulgogi with squid and cucumber served with slightly fermented rice. There’s a softness throughout from the fat in the meat and the yielding rice that the squid and cucumber succumb to. It would actually make fantastic comfort food and it’s this dish more than any other I hope survives this menu to stay on at Windows. I was completely unashamed to think of a cheap, slightly greasy, Chinese take away – although this dish has a ‘classic’ quality about it, it really doesn’t need any MSG.
These two courses are the pillars of the menu and would be excellent available on their own. Predictably perhaps, it’s the wine pairings that hold the seven courses together as a unit. With the foie gras we enjoyed Soju Hwayo mixed with home-fermented plum juice, an inspired cocktail that epitomises the endeavour of the menu and is infinitely better than the last soju mixture I drank involving Korean ‘beer’. I’m told they put soju in beer in Korea, not to water down the spirit but to improve the taste of the beer. The beer is called ‘Cass’ and it’s disgraceful. Avoid it as you would a rabid dog or Donald Trump.
The pork went with a Pinot Noir Jubilee Hugel from Alsace and the raspberry wine that paired with the white chocolate & deonjang cremeaux, castella sponge and red bean and pumpkin ice cream was a cheerful, if saccharine, highlight. Unfortunately the dessert was not: it seemed to be doing too much, there were too many misfits – the white chocolate was lost and while the castella sponge was suitably sweet it bumped into the pumpkin ice cream awkwardly as the crack of the red beans destroyed all semblance of texture. The ingredients were like the basement collection of civil servants, hiding out in a forgotten government department, pretending to work and desperate not to be found out.
The experience is a heady one though, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in Won’s ambitious fusion. There are some gems which will see this menu, rightly, enjoyed throughout October and hopefully, in the case of the two mains, beyond. The £189 price of the menu with wines and cocktail is high but those wanting to try something unique will not be disappointed. Joo Won has created something genuine and, in places, hovering on very, very, good – postcard recipients may well be jealous of more than the view from Windows.
Post Script: What if a rich and eclectic tasting menu is simply not what you want after a long day? While I ploughed through the forest of flavours, scribbling notes, asking questions and loading haphazard forkfuls, my dining partner, never one for strong tastes, raw seafood or red meat, felt a little lost. Here the waiting staff proved the most important rule of dining out: enjoyment. Sensing something was not quite right they asked if she would prefer something else and swiftly produced a dish of gnocchi and chicken breast. She soon felt restored and revived, receiving empathy from the manager who explained many of his own friends eschew ornate dining when they visit. This unfussed readjustment was welcome proof that pretence is no substitute for taste or enjoyment. Go out: be happy.
The Korean Menu is being served at Galvin at Windows until October 31