British cuisine gets a lot of stick; how easy is it to write some lazy jibe about soggy chips or lumpy mash, when really we've got some cracking dishes - I'm talking about you, Sunday roast. The one terrible tradition that deserves derision, however, is the BBQ - the mere mention of the word provokes flashbacks of dad, cargo shorts and a piece of steak whose seemingly last wish was to be cremated and scattered on my plate. Koba has been around for more than 10 years, an Olympic feat on the London dining scene, and is bringing Korean BBQ to Fitzrovia; we went down to find out how grilling should really be done.
Venue and Atmosphere
Five minutes from the fiery hell of Oxford Street, Koba is a zen, minimalist, serene den, that ushers you in for a session of contemplation and eating. One of the few Korean BBQ restaurants with grills built into tables in London, the venue is divided into two. In the first part, a bar, which doubles up as grill, stretches along one wall and is lined with both chefs and drinkers, the latter of which are seduced into eating by the dishes that sizzle inches away.
Seated in the second part of the restaurant, we were led to a table with a silver disk in the middle and a long trunk-like tube dangling over it. It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t an obscure art piece, rather a nozzle to suck up the smoke. In fact, there was no obscure, pointless pieces - everything revolved around the food. The lack of a bland background Spotify playlist went unnoticed with the sizzling sound of cooking and the plain white walls seemed almost temple-like, with a steady flow of eaters coming in to replace those who had just left.
Food and Drink
Divided into three parts, the menu starts with traditional Korean starters, before moving onto the BBQ dishes and sides. The Appetisers lived up to their name with a long list of fried seafood, beef plates and bite-size pancakes. Saba Katsu (£6.20) was an interesting, salty dish of fried mackerel fillets, with a spicy wasbi mayo that cut through and lightened the fatty fish. Beef Pyunche (£7.90) was equally delicious, though entirely different as wisps of tataki beef swam in a tart soy sauce.
With such a strong list of appetisers, there was a worry that the support band could outplay the main act - how good can BBQ really be? We needn’t have worried, the dishes didn’t drop a note as waiters lifted the lid on the grill, wiped it with oil and began cooking. To try a bit of everything - and avoid having to make tricky decisions - Koba BBQ selection (£35) is a hit list of the restaurant’s most popular cuts; from paper-thin slices of pork belly that hissed as they hit the metal to LA Golbi spare ribs, tangy with sauce. Sides aren't really needed when it comes to the meat; eat it in the traditional Korean fashion with a lettuce leaf and spring onion garnish.
You might forget for a moment that you were in Fitzrovia rather than an Asian food shrine, but the wine list brings you back to this part of London with its smarter choices. Bottles come mainly from France, along with a short, refreshing cocktail list made from Korean spirit Soju. If you have listened to anyone near a menu ever, white wine might not be the first choice with red meat, but the Torrent Bay Sauvignon Blanc (£36.50) cut through the heavier meat taste, with a sharp first note and finishing on warmer, sweeter tastes.
For something so seemingly simple, Korean BBQ food does not miss a mark. Koba might be on the fancier, Fitzrovia end of the scale, but you get what you pay for with stand-out wines, attentive service and BBQ plates that will ensure you never go near dad’s summertime offering ever again.