The invitation for a Korean Food festival could not have come at a better time. I had had two disappointing meals at Mumbai’s first Korean restaurant (more on that here) last week and I was ready for some good Korean food, even if it meant a one and a half hour trek to the Renaissance Mumbai Convention Center Hotel in Powai.
The festival menu has been put together by Chef Oh Wong Jong who heads the main kitchen at the JW Marriott, Seoul. Diners have the option of choosing from a daily changing à la carte menu or one of the three set 5-course menus: a vegetarian, a seafood and a mix n match menu. Unfortunately, they hadn’t included pork on any of these menus, but that might change.
While I was expecting a proper traditional Korean meal, Chef Oh’s very modern Korean menu came as a pleasant surprise.
Only two of dishes served that night could be considered traditional; the first was the banchan: assorted side dishes placed on the table at the start of the meal (the equivalent of Indian table accompaniments like pickle and onions). There was a sweetish potato namul; a tangy, spicy cucumber, radish and onion kimchi and a mildly flavoured brinjal jorim. The second was a thick, salty, crab and porridge soup. You couldn’t see the crab flakes, but every time you bit into one, the contrasting texture and sweetness of its flesh came as wonderful surprise. It was so good that The Girlfriend ordered, and finished, a second bowl by herself after the main course.
The second course was a very humdrum prawns vegetable salad with wild sesame dressing; the prawns were perfectly cooked but the salad dressing and the vegetable was tasteless and uninspiring. Also, the Korean connection was not very clear.
The same question came up with the lobster medallion with dates, cucumber and pear in a mustard sauce. While the pairing of soft dates and crunchy pears with the sweet lobster was radical and absolutely cutting edge, its Korean origins do not come through at all. This was a fabulous dish and one that I would be happy to eat anywhere in the world; but I thought it was a misfit at a specifically Korean festival – I’d have pegged it as a more generally Asian-inspired preparation.
A recurring motif through the dinner was a sesame seed-based sauce which was usually combined with Dijon mustard and other condiments and was mostly unnoticeable. Where it worked spectacularly well, and stood out by itself, was with the beef rolls wrapped with vegetables. The sweet, succulent beef rolls almost played second fiddle to the nutty, tangy, grainy, ivory-coloured sauce.
The plating of the next two courses was disappointing: the meat and rice were very impractically placed at the ends of a long plate. Making a Chinese-style sauce with gochujang, the ubiquitous Korean sweet-spicy chilli paste, was a great idea but it was the only interesting thing on the plate. I’m not sure what they were thinking when they opted to serve a dry bulgogi with a dry rice. By this point in the meal what we also noticed, and brought to the attention of the chef, was the repetitive use of carrots, zucchini and/ or cucumber, cut in almost the same way in every course. It was as if the entire pantheon of vegetables had disappeared from the Emperor’s Court kitchens.
Although it was missing the egg, the bibimbap was a straight forward classic and I thought the unconventional adaptation of prawns in a sweet spicy sauce worked quite nicely.
Dessert was a bit of a let-down; the beautifully shaped, walnut bread was soft and chewy but played too minor a role in the presentation.
We were among the first set of diners at the festival and I’m hoping they’ll resolve these minor issues. It’s a very unusual festival offering a refreshingly different way to experience Korean cuisine.
The Korean Food Festival is on at the Emperor’s Court, Renaissance Mumbai Convention Center Hotel, Powai up to Nov 30, 2014.