Plates out of Patriotism
I REAPED the benefits by taking a Korean to a Korean restaurant. Almost from the start, bright, expressively flavoured appetisers or ‘Banchan’ found their way to our table for free. These included glossy, chewy, slightly syrupy ‘kong ja ban’ beans, Wotsit shaped, spicy rice cakes and fine, glassy noodles, which looked like elvers (baby eels). All authentic, according to my Korean envoy. I doubt a token English in an English restaurant would receive such generous treatment…
Finsbury Park’s ‘Dotori’ has been open fewer than five months. For some reason, I got it into my head that it takes its name from a small island lying midway between South Korea and Japan. Although a fanciful notion, no doubt spurred by an aperitif of ‘Soju’ (a coarse but compelling rice distillation capped at 20p/c) I like my story. It summarises the culinary intentions of a restaurant delivering both Korean and Japanese food. In reality it means ‘chestnut’. Korean’s traditionally describe something small as ‘dotori’, and having only seven tables, it seemed a suitable soubriquet.
Despite the ‘Asahi’ sponsored placemats, I got the impression that the Korean family who run it most enjoy coaxing the flavours of their homeland. The highlight was the ancient speciality: kimchi, or fermented, seasoned cabbage. Laden with vitamin C, and attributed an almost sacred status, when chilled, the moist, moreish, pistachio green leaves evoked savoury ice cream. I also tried ‘Bindaetteok’, a thick tortilla like pancake made with ‘mug bean’, more kimchi (Koreans scoff 40lbs of it per person, per year) and garlic. This hearty dish is apparently best enjoyed with rain...
My ‘Haemeltung’ (fish stew) arrived full of promise, still sizzling. Excavating its contents was a pleasure: all sorts of crustaceans and cuttlefish emerged from the depths of the thrillingly spiced, tofu topped granite basin. Rice was gluttonous. I was gluttonous. Brittle, dried, seaweed plates, darker then spinach, smelt of fish food and worked well when crimped against the rice.
A floral, fleshy aloe vera drink toned down the chilli, whilst a medicinal tasting, sweet plum potion provoked it. The latter also began to help me understand the hangul alphabet printed on the rectangular lampshades.
Whilst I am about as far from being an expert on culinary Korea as a dog is to becoming a domestic pet on those shores, I found the food first rate. Given the enduring flavours we sampled, it came as a surprise that the owner comes from a profession poles apart from cooking. He used to monitor production of L.C.D. televisions for ‘L.G.’ in the U.K. until British workers were deemed too slow. We finished a set every 11 seconds rather then the requisite 10.7. Freeloading loafers! L.G. since exported their fickle factory to Eastern Europe.
Apart from good taste, I learnt a couple of other facts over dinner. Apparently there were street riots when the U.S. pressed the country to accept its beef (Times). And, unlike the Japanese, Koreans consider it bizarre to replace chopsticks in their holsters at the end of a meal.
That seems less peculiar then the fact that this excellent, inexpensive chestnut (£74 for four heavyweights) doesn’t dare to go it alone and promote its core culinary genre. Maybe they are worried that by ditching the Asahi and order by picture sushi, potential customers will give this succulent corner of Korea the cold shoulder…
‘Dotori’ – 3 Stroud Green Rd., Finsbury Park, London. N4 2DF. T. 020 7263 3562
Nearest Tube: Finsbury Park
Nearest Tube: Finsbury Park
My latest article for the Southwark News is here: ‘Keeping it Surreal on the Wild Coast’