Cambridge has seen quite a few new Asian restaurants opening up recently. Earlier this year it gained its second Korean restaurant, the small Bibimbap house on Mill Road.
That there is decent demand for this kind of restaurant was clear when we went in early on a Thursday evening. Every table in the restaurant was filled and the waitress politely asked us if we’d mind coming back a bit later. While we ate each newly vacated table was also quickly filled with new customers.
The restaurant was fairly basically decorated. The freshly painted white walls bare apart from two nice pieces of modern Korean art, while a few flowers and a big black lantern sat in the window alcove. Rather than austere, this limited decor gives the place a nice zen-like simplicity.
At the moment, the menu is also quite minimalist with just a list of six or so different varieties of the namesake bibimbap. The owner said she’d deliberately decide to focus on serving bibimbap, a dish she extolled for its healthy benefits. This typical Korean dish consists of different vegetables and meat of fish which are mixed together with rice, usually in a hot stone bowl that cooks them at the same time.
I went for the standard bibimbap, which came with piles of spinach, onion, sliced carrot and straggly beef pieces arranged like segments of a colour wheel on top of the white rice. A raw egg is typically broken over this to cook as it’s mixed, but here an already fried one had been used in what was perhaps a bow to English tastes. We mixed the ingredients together so they cooked against the hot stone bowl, scooping in some of the chilli sauce so that it stained the rice a bright orange.
This gochujang sauce is the fundamental ingredient of bibimbap, giving the rice its distinctive flavour. Made by fementing soya beans and chilies, it has a powerful pungent flavour that is overwhelming when eaten on its own, but when mixed which rice diffuses more gently together with a tingling spice. Some restaurants have a bad, bland version of this sauce. Here, however, it was excellent and gave each mouthful of rice a satisfyingly strong flavour.
The quality of the rice can also let the dish down if it’s too stodgy or dry. The rice at Bibimbap House was prepared perfectly though. Plump pearly grains had nice soft sponginess that soaked up the sauce to release it in the mouth. As it’s meant to, the rice at the bottom of the bowl had fried slightly so as you dug down with chopstick you pulled up delightfully crispy golden pieces.
Adding more texture were strips of carrot, which were fresh and remained slightly al dente in a way that gave them a cool crispness which contrasted nicely with soft rice’s softness. The other vegetables also contributed their own cool fresh flavours in a way that pleasantly balanced the pungent and spicy sauce.
The person I was eating with had the japchae bibimbap which similarly displayed interesting textures. The translucent sweet potato noodles had an unusual springy gelatinousness, while little strips of wood ear mushroom were elastic in a way reminding of squid. These cool and earthy flavours mixed nicely with the sharper spice of the chilli sauce. While not quite as striking as the other bibimbap, it was a nicely done dish.
As is customary in Korean cuisine, the two mains were orbited by lots of small side dishes. The kim chi nicely contrasted the almost icy cool taste of pale white cabbage with the spice of the bright red sauce that coated it. The other dish presented similar contrast, but with crisp slices of raddish. Miso soup, while nothing that special, was a heart-warming addition.
These small sides, and the substantial mains, meant that both dishes were excellent value for money for just under ten pounds each and left us truly filled. But more than just satisfying my appetite, they succeeded in offering a stimulating range of tastes and textures that satisfied my curiosity as well.