Your Mum’s Kitchen, inside SK Mart, 17 Goldhurst Terrace, London NW6 3HX (020 3302 4390). Snacks and starters £2.50-£7.50, mains £5-£9.50, unlicensed
Restaurant reviews can serve different purposes. Some are there so the writer can tell you what they did at the weekend and invite you to consider their lovely life. Many are service journalism: here’s a place that may be worth your money, and do try the hispi cabbage. Others can be social anthropology through the medium of lunch. The late Jonathan Gold, who reviewed for the LA Times prior to his infuriatingly premature death in 2018, aged 57, did the latter. From feverishly following Gold, the only food critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, I learned that in Los Angeles, the serious food action was rarely to be found in the rhinestoned and anally bleached neighbourhoods of Beverly Hills or Bel Air. It was within the mosaic of communities from different ethnic groups that made up the rest of the urban sprawl.
He made a modest southern Thai restaurant called Jitladala, on a less-than-lovely stretch of Sunset Boulevard in East Hollywood, famous for the way it layered flavours and made your scalp sweat, owing to chilli heat. I ate there alone one night and gave thanks there was no one to witness me swabbing my brow as I returned repeatedly to curries with an almost psychotropic effect. By email, Gold explained to me once that in Los Angeles I was likely to find more traditional Korean restaurants than in Seoul. In the South Korean capital, he said, they will be looking to the future. “In LA, the Korean immigrants are remembering where they came from.”
In Britain, much of the anthropological reviewing of this sort comes from some of the bigger restaurant websites, and very handy those lists are. The writers can, however, tend to come across like those Victorian explorers who trumpet their discovery of a previously unknown and isolated tribe, when the tribe didn’t need to be discovered because they knew exactly where they were all the time and were getting along just fine without the interruption, thank you very much. Writing about a category of restaurants is not the same as inventing that category of restaurants.
There is also the risk that, in a city overburdened by the hyper-designed and over-priced, the quality of the food served in a modest restaurant becomes venerated simply because of all the things the business is not. Rule of thumb: review anything – music, books, restaurants – because of what it is, not because of what it isn’t.
Your Mum’s Kitchen, located down a side road near London’s Finchley Road tube, is a bare-bones café and utterly delightful for being that. Based on the steady parade of people entering the brightly lit basement dining room from the Korean corner shop above, it’s clearly already been found in the eight months since the Son family took over SK Mart and launched the restaurant. And now I’ve found it courtesy of a tip-off from singer-songwriter Tom Rosenthal, who lives nearby.
It’s open from noon until 8.30pm and seats only a couple of dozen on both cushion-strewn benches against the wall and chairs with proper back support. Fetch your own water and glasses from the table in the corner. Take in the wooden poles in primary Ikea shades of yellow and blue. There are many teas including ginger, plum or yuzu sweetened with honey, but it is unlicensed. (You can bring your own for a modest corkage fee.) There’s a concise menu of snacks and stews, or stir fries with rice. Nothing costs more than £9.50 and you can see exactly where it’s all coming from because, in one corner, fitted for the most part with domestic appliances, is the kitchen with someone else’s mum in it. Her name is Mi Ja Hong, and she is the waiter’s mum.
We order a seafood pajeon and watch as she whips up the batter for the thick pancake. It arrives golden brown and sliced into squares, the green of spring onion tracing lines across the lacy surface, as they weave in and out of the curls of squid. The edges where it has crisped against the hot pan are the prized bits I head for. On the side is a deep soy dipping sauce. Pan-fried chicken dumplings are serviceable, but the chicken wings are so much more than that: double fried to form a shatteringly crisp shell, then drenched in a sweet and fiery gochujang-based glaze, with the apparent aromatics of cinnamon. It’s a big, meaty plateful for £6. A bowl of their fiery kimchi takes the edge off the overt sweetness.
The main courses are big hearty stews of a sort you want on a winter’s day. Non-meat eaters beware, or perhaps ask for advice. Some vegetarian-sounding dishes come larded (almost literally) with pieces of belly pork. I’m not complaining, but you might. A kimchi stew is a bowl of rust-coloured liquor with a hot and sour intensity and, in the bottom, blocks of silky tofu to cool everything down. Pieces of squid in a stir fry, which some might find just a little too soft and unapologetically squid-like, are doused in a sweet sauce that is a close cousin of that used on the chicken wings.
We also have tubular rice cakes like packing foam in a black bean sauce that is the unrelenting black of Johnny’s black paintings in The Fast Show, so you get to stare into the morbid abyss while you eat. It’s quite the salty plateful, which makes its mark based on just a couple of spoonfuls. The star turn, though, is the special of yukgaejang advertised via a paper notice taped to the wall. It’s a spicy beef soup with solid pieces of meat and cabbage in its endlessly sustaining depths. Like the kimchi stew, it is the shade of rust that might kill a few white shirts for ever. But you wouldn’t regret losing a bit of prime laundry to a broth like this.
Afterwards you head upstairs and pay the £15-a-head bill at the counter, and purchase all the Korean sauces you couldn’t resist on your journey past the shelves. If you want cake get it from the café next door. Almost all the other customers who came in to eat were Asian, which suggests this is a business serving a local community in search of the home cooking of a home now a long way away. Clearly, it’s doing that job very well. There are obviously bigger Korean restaurants in London offering longer, more sophisticated menus. But I doubt there are many that are as sweet and beguiling as this one.
Seoul Kimchi, by Manchester’s Royal Infirmary, could be twinned with Your Mum’s Kitchen. It started as a shop selling ingredients from home to Korean students in the city, then added a few tables before reversing the business and becoming a small, achingly cheap restaurant selling a few ingredients. Go there for Korean fried chicken, stir fries, rice bowls and, for the geographically restless, a bit of sushi (facebook.com/seoulkimchimanchester).
Chef Tom Norrington-Davies, formerly of the much-loved, much-missed Great Queen Street, is putting his other skill as a yoga instructor to work in service of the Pilot Light, the campaigning organisation providing support on mental health issues to people in the hospitality industry. On 24 March he’ll be holding a yoga workshop for chefs, and anyone else who is on their feet all day, to raise funds for them at TriYoga in London’s Shoreditch. Tickets costs £5 (triyoga.co.uk).
The 350-strong Restaurant Group, which owns brands like Frankie and Benny’s and Chiquito, is looking to close up to 90 of those outlets by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is to close his River Cottage Kitchen in Bristol after seven years, sighting ‘rising costs and challenging market conditions’.
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/mar/08/your-mums-kitchen-london-sweet-beguiling-korean-home-cooking-restaurant-review