Jinseon Korean BBQ Restaurant, Unit 5 Priory Place, Fairfax Street, Coventry CV1 5SQ. Small plates £6.55-£12.55, barbecue items £8.95-£11.95, rice and noodle dishes £11.95-£13.55, dessert £6.95, sake and wine rice £9.50 for 125ml
Modern food preparation technology is to be celebrated: it’s cleaner, more energy efficient and simply easier to use than the old ways. The thing is, it’s not very romantic. No one will ever write emotionally dense prose about how a 1200 watt convection oven works. They could write something full of scholarly bathos, but not a sentence to make the heart flutter. While the steel cauldron of glowing coals, brought to our table at Jinseon Korean BBQ Restaurant in Coventry, is the essence of the legend. By this I mean the Norse legend full of vain, bloodied men who crouch by the fire in the nocturnal glade of the forest, to cook the day’s hunt while telling tales of their bravery. As the stocky man dressed in ash-stained black lifts this cauldron from its resting place, sparks fly and ribbons of white smoke twirl skyward. We feel the heat on our cheeks and our forearms and on our troglodyte souls.
See. Real flames, or the red fire of man as dear King Louie called it in the The jungle Book, just do the thing. It is rare to see him at the table these days. Last time I encountered smoldering coals was at the gloriously madman’s septi, opposite the Imperial War Museum. Before that was 2009 at Soot Bull Jeep, a dark cubbyhole at a restaurant famous for being the last barbecue spot in Koreatown, Los Angeles to use them. The others now seem to favor electric hotplates. And yes, I know health and safety has gone sane, but still. That said, thanks for the modern, industrial-scale extractor system that hangs above each table from the high ceiling here in the back. I want to eat my lunch, not be asphyxiated by it.
Jinseon is one of a cluster of Asian restaurants and supermarkets clustered around a modern square opposite the headquarters of BBC Coventry and Warwickshire. The existence of these places, serving Chengdu hot pot and the like, is a tribute to a relatively new market created by an influx of students from various parts of Asia; you’ll find them in many if not all college towns these days. It is clear that Jinseon is here to serve this clientele with as much enthusiasm as possible. The menu starts with different versions of Korean Fried Chicken, that double-fried wonder drizzled with enough gochujang sauce to paint the whole downtown area red.
Attaching morality to food has always troubled me. Sure, you can call me dirty, probably enough, but a stacked burger can’t be dirty any more than a salad can be clean. The word to describe Korean fried chicken is messy, even more so in the “dirty” offering here, by the addition of melted mozzarella, cheddar cheese and a handful of jalapenos. No one needs to add melted cheese to fried chicken in sauce. But then nobody needs that chicken in the first place. This is very much in “wanted” territory. I wanted it.
To go on the grill we have thin pieces of marinated beef ribs, sliced through the bone, and similarly sawn lamb cuts a la mode with cumin, both around £11 for a good portion. They’re not the best cuts of meat, but once the high-sugar marinades start to caramelize over the hot coals, who cares? We have a variety of sweet and sticky chili sauces to go with them, as well as kimchi and crispy bowls of iceberg lettuce leaves to wrap them up in, if you may be disappointed with the admin. As always, Korean barbecue involves a lot of administration.
In this case, it also brings a certain amount of work for the kitchen. The wide rim of the steel fitting into which the cauldron fits contains curved metal compartments. A yellow liquid is poured into one of a teapot. It’s beaten egg that, with a little encouragement from our forks, will slowly scramble thanks to the heat. Another contains sweet corn kernels with caramelizing cheese. Both are a delicious sideshow to compulsively choose, but I get really worried about how they crust the board. How in God’s name can they get rid of it? Sounds like a boiling job to me.
The menu features some intriguing soup dishes, including Budae Jjigae at £25 for two, described as a ‘popular Korean-American fusion stew derived after the Korean War’. The main hallmark of this merger is the inclusion of spam alongside tofu, kimchi, ramen noodles, and cheese. I don’t want to spam today, or ever, as it happens. Instead, we have seafood bibimbap, a furiously hot iron pot filled with rice topped with mussels, prawns and calamari. It achieves much of its effect through dollops of sweet chilli sauce, but leave it for a while and a slice of the precious burnt rice develops at the bottom for you to fight. We also have a seafood pajeon, the famous cross between a pancake and an omelette. It took us so long to explore the joys of grilling that it went lukewarm. We throw pieces of pajeon on the coals for a few minutes and it crisps up deliciously.
The folks behind Jinseon own a cafe elsewhere in town serving both Korean fried chicken and croffles, which, like cruffin and cronut, are a hybrid baked good involving a croissant, in this case pushed into a waffle iron. You get both the required puff layering and the waffle holes to fill. They are offered here as a dessert and seem to me to be proof of humanity’s infinite capacity to innovate and embellish, especially when it is totally useless. I’m here for the croffle. Ours is covered in a cinnamon sugar crust with a bowl of soft serve ice cream, caramelized popcorn and a bit of fruit. Oh, and a ceramic polar bear sitting proudly in the middle of the plate. Because, well just because.
I heard about Jinseon from the excellent rugby journalist Ellen Manning who blogs at eatwithellen.com. She was worried when I invited her to join me that it wouldn’t be as good as other Korean restaurants I’ve tried. It really does, in a totally engaging way. Anywhere that can still be bothered by the faff of hot coals is good for me. But also, in truth, we know that the best Korean barbecue is probably somewhere in Korea. What matters is that Coventry has this space covered in raw wood panels offering a really good time for anyone who likes to cook their own lunch.
London’s Borough Market is hosting a series of events in the run-up to Christmas, hosted by cook and food writer Angela Clutton, author of the just-released book Borough Market: know-how. Next Tuesday she will be joined by Cynthia Shanmugalingam to discuss her first cookbook Rambutan which draws on its Anglo-Sri Lankan heritage. On November 22, she will be in conversation with writers Ed Smith, author of The borough market cookbook and Mark Riddaway, author of Edible stories. On December 7, it will be a Christmas special. Tickets are available here.
The charity Guide Dogs for the Blind has launched a campaign highlighting the problem of guide dog owners who are illegally denied access to businesses, including restaurants and bars. Recent research found that 81% of guide dog owners have experienced some form of access denial, with 73% saying it happened in the last year. Further research found that one in five front desk staff were unaware that refusing a guide dog is illegal, and half said they would have trouble identifying a guide dog from a pet. Visit This site for more information on the campaign.
Chef Phil Howard, of restaurants Elystan Street and Kitchen W8, has changed the name of the pasta restaurant he is about to open in Piccadilly. It will now be called Notto rather than Otto, to avoid confusion with the popular French restaurant by Ottowhich has been trading on Gray’s Inn Road for almost a decade.