Bibimbap House

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.

The Ox (Manchester)

With most gastro pubs the pub part gets lost. They usually just have small bar area in a token tribute to the pub they may have once been and are largely restaurant, the atmosphere defined by the up-market-ness of the food on offer. But The Ox is unusual in that it really is a proper pub and gastro restaurant crammed together into a fairly small space. This means it offers the rare possibility of having fine food in a very casual setting.

The word casual didn’t quite sum it up when we came on a Saturday afternoon though. The front part was rammed with boisterous football fans who’d stopped in for a beer on their way home from the match and was noisy and bustling. This could easily put somebody off who’d stepping in from the street expecting a quaint pub lunch. But if you pass through this, there is a section marked off for dining which is much calmer. This divide between the two parts almost works, though during our meal shouting did keep spilling over and it never felt completely relaxed.

The Ox has a £10 two course menu with an range of appetising sounding pub dishes – pies, steaks, and fish. Wanting something a bit fancier though, we ordered from the other gastro menu with mains at around £15 to £20.

My starter of black pudding potato cake had light potato puree inside with a softness contrasting nicely with the crisp shell of breadcrumbs around. Little specks of black pudding in the potato filling added an earthiness to its taste. The accompanying poached egg oozed out golden sauce that was perfect to eat with the potato.

I ordered roe deer for the main, interested to try this meat. The small slices, brown round their edges and pinkish in the middle, didn’t disappoint. They were wonderfully meltingly soft in a way I’d normally only expect from the highest grade of beef. They had perhaps a slightly more gamey flavour than beef’s subtleness, but were very smooth to eat – without any of the slight graininess of fibrousness that meat can have.

The accompanying beetroot gratin was also good. The thin layers of gratin, though tasting surprisingly similar to their potato equivalent, had an extra fruitiness, sweetness and softness that made them feel rich in flavor.

Generally the vegetables accompanying our dishes were interesting. The fish came with rosti which instead of normal potatoes’ softer flavor was made from sweet potato which had a brasher taste and texture which helped it nicely offset the creaminess of the fish and it’s sauce. My only complaint was that the patty of potato strands, which should be lightly browned by frying, was slightly over fried so a few pieces were a little blacker.

I also felt that the pork belly one of my fellow diners had wasn’t quite as meltingly soft as it can sometimes be with really slow cooking. But it was better than many I’ve had too, and these are minor niggles in what were otherwise some really well prepared dishes. They all endeavored to do something a little bit more interesting and generally succeeded in pulling this off, justifying The Ox’s claim to be a gastro pub more than many do.

If you’re looking for a place to get some stimulating food in a very informal setting, then you could do a lot worse than coming here.

Directions

Liverpool Road, Castlefield. Manchester M3 4NQ

Contact
www.theox.co.uk
0161 839 7740