Chungdam, London: ‘In good hands’ – restaurant review

<span>‘You should leave feeling the bill matched the attention to detail’: Chungdam’s dining room.</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
‘You should leave feeling the bill matched the attention to detail’: Chungdam’s dining room.Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Chungdam, 35-36 Greek St, London W1D 5DL. Bookings taken via WhatsApp: 07548 925 636, chungdam.co.uk. Starters and sides £7.50 – £18.50; barbecue dishes £13.50 – £68; rice and noodles £14.50 – £16.50; dessert 38. Wine from £35 a bottle

It’s odd when the once achingly familiar becomes alien; when you move house, say, and what was once yours suddenly belongs to someone else. After my parents died, we sold the family home in northwest London and the buyers cut down the magnificent horse chestnut in the front garden, the great tree whose canopy had spanned my childhood. They also paved over the lawn to create more parking. I wanted to be livid, but I knew it was no longer mine to be livid about. I should save the rage for more deserving atrocities. Later, I was told that this building, in which I’d led a raucous, vodka-marinated adolescence, was now home to Buddhist monks and their carers. The house had gone off with someone else. It was probably off the booze.

I felt the same dismay about the building on the corner of Greek and Romilly Streets in London’s Soho. It was once home to Y Ming, a Chinese restaurant I’ve written about in possibly annoying detail. I was a regular there and, for many years, I often didn’t even have to open the door to get in. They’d see me coming and open it for me. It was my place. In late 2021, it closed, and I mourned the huge bite that had been taken out of my psychogeography of the city. Eventually, I noticed that the jade green frontage had been painted a pale cream. The building was moving on with its life. I had to move on, too.

In April, it opened as a Korean barbecue restaurant called Chung’dam, after the Cheongdam-dong district of Seoul, apparently famed for its restaurants and bars. Obviously, I regarded it as dead to me. Then I looked at the menu. There was something about its tight, elegant serif typeface, and the conciseness of the offering, which drew me in. Previous experiences of Korean barbecue, the whole detailed ritual of searing fragments of animal for yourself at the table, have led me to regard it as a raucous, elbows-on-the-table affair. It’s always fuelled by an energising undercurrent of anxiety that, like a newcomer to the foxtrot or civil war re-enactment, you might not be doing it right. Not long ago, I reviewed Jinseon in Coventry and there they used real spitting, flickering coals that left your hair smelling of your dinner. I enjoyed that, but Chung’dam promises something very different. It delivers on that promise.

If you can get in, that is, for the door, which once was forever open to me, is now, like a fancy Bond Street jeweller, locked. Perhaps they clock my dismay, for it is opened swiftly. The policy immediately makes sense. It has always been a tight space and, with the staff moving around swiftly to attend to the grills, there really isn’t much room for looming men with beards like me to hang about in. A locked door, combined with an almost entirely Asian clientele who clearly know what they’re doing, can make it all a little intimidating. Once in, it stops being so. In their quiet, solicitous way the staff make it clear they are delighted you have come.

So let’s heat up that inset electric hot plate and cut straight to the main event. The list of cuts for the barbecue includes fillet and ribeye wagyu, the garish Versace of the meat-locker at equally garish prices. It’s there for those trying to impress themselves. These can be ignored. We have a portion of thin, fat-marbled slices of Iberico pork shoulder for £18.50, which sizzle and curl on the griddle. The once carpeted floor is now a creamy tile that matches the oatmeal walls, because shag pile would, I imagine, become sticky over time from all the wafting smoke. We have salty-sweet pastes of garlic and chilli with which to anoint the pork, and crisp lettuce leaves to wrap them up in. Best of all, we have our waiter, who stands beside us unobtrusively for a few minutes, doing things with precise, controlled gestures, until she concludes that all is as it should be. What might have been a source of anxiety has now just become dinner. Tight, pale fists of enoki mushroom and thick, creamy stemmed leaves of Chinese cabbage are added to the grill where they sear and caramelise.

We have salted pieces of boneless, skinless chicken thigh, which take a quick char, and thin slices of soy-marinated short rib. These cloud the air above our table with an intense savouriness. I live for clouds of savouriness above my table. Obviously, this is huge fun but, unlike previous Korean barbecue experiences, it is also low maintenance, save for the slippy metal chopsticks, which challenge our dexterity. We get there in the end.

All of this comes fiercely accessorised. Their kimchi manages to be both pungent and delicate, the crimson-speckled slices of cabbage slumped one atop the other like the bulging pages of some damp telephone directory. There’s a plate of their own crisp, green pickles, including asparagus spears and cylinders of bouncy okra, standing to attention. We have a robust salad of radicchio, spring onions and sesame, with pearly batons of squid. Alongside is a dark-red dipping sauce shouty with gochujang, Korea’s fermented, chilli-deep gift to the world. There’s a sweet soy and sesame oil-dressed salad of shredded spring onions, and a plate of finely sliced, battered and then deep-fried beef, which feels like it’s wandered in from a Friday night down the chippy. It’s a welcome guest. Carbs are supplied by the bibimbap, a warm rice bowl with the sunshine promise of a raw egg yolk laid delicately across ribbons of raw marinated beef, all of which cooks against the hot stone bowl as it is mixed for us.

Chungdam styles itself as a refined version of the clattering tabletop barbecue places to be found across Shaftesbury Avenue, and it’s priced accordingly. The wine list starts with a serviceable New Zealand chardonnay at £35 and then wanders off in search of wealthy people who crave Montrachet and Nuits-Saint-Georges. Nevertheless, you should leave feeling the bill matched the attention to detail. And your hair won’t smell, so there’s that. For dessert, there is a rather dense chocolate gâteau. Perhaps go elsewhere. You are, after all, in a neighbourhood where there’s the promise of good cake or gelato on almost every corner. They unlock the door and we set out in search of it. Yes, this particular chunk of Soho has moved on. It is no longer mine. It belongs to others. But it’s in good hands.

News bites

The latest annual study by the food and drink analysis company Lumina Intelligence has reported that the eating-out market in the UK will see growth of almost 3% this year. This will take it to a total value of just on £100bn, which is 8.2% above its pre-pandemic value. However, the apparently optimistic forecast hides a darker story. What they call the ‘service-led’ sector, industry jargon for the kind of restaurants this column covers, is still very much struggling and remains below where it was in 2019.

The husband-and-wife team behind the Korean restaurant Bokman, which opened in Bristol in 2019, is to open a second venture in the Redlands area of the city. Kyu Jeong Jeon and Duncan Robertson met while working for L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris and also spent time cooking in Korea. Their menus include beef ribs braised in sweet soy, kimchi fried rice with fried egg and roast pork, and spicy braised tofu with king oysters and Chinese greens (bokman.co.uk).

Sky News has reported that Minor Hotels, the huge Bangkok-based multinational hospitality group that wrested control of the Wolseley Group from its founder Jeremy King in 2022, has called in consultants to give advice on cost issues. AlixPartners will apparently review the entire business, which includes Brasserie Zedel, the Delaunay and the newly opened Manzi’s. The original Wolseley was opened in 2003 by King and his business partner Chris Corbin, and became the cornerstone of a successful London empire, before running into financial trouble as the industry emerged from Covid. Meanwhile King’s latest venture, a brasserie called the Park in London’s Bayswater, is due to open within a few weeks.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on X @jayrayner1

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