It was with some trepidation that I went for dinner to Heng Bok, Mumbai’s first Korean-specialty restaurant, last week. The newly opened restaurant is run by the same owners as Kofuku, a very popular Bandra restaurant whose Americanised-pop-Japanese food I’m not too fond of, but which can be great fun and is one of The Girlfriend’s regular haunts. My other concern was that earlier in the day an acquaintance on FB had pointed out that she suffered a case of food poisoning after a meal there.
I was willing to bite down on both concerns for a very simple reason: I love Korean food, The Girlfriend loves Korean food. We’ve travelled 8 hours to Pune and back just to have lunch at Cafe Maroo. Unlike Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Pune, Mumbai has very little to offer by way of Korean fare. India Jones at The Trident, Nariman Point has a very good Korean set meal for weekday lunches, Busaba does an acceptable pajeon and a decent Bibimbap and… well, that’s about it for the city.
The promise of a Korean-specialty place that would save us a 180-km journey was too tempting an offer to ignore.
Serendipitously, we bumped into friends in the basement dining area; Alok, who was unwinding after distributing cards for his sister’s wedding and Colin, a charming Irishman who asked to be described as tall and young.
As usual, the power to place the order was relinquished to me and absolute power corrupted me absolutely. We ordered the jim mandu (pork steam dumplings), osam bulgogi (spicy stir fried squid and pork), haemul pajeon (a mixed seafood pancake), a grilled beef bulgogi and a dolsot bibimbap (rice and vegetables served in a hot stone).
The banchan, the complimentary array of side dishes customarily placed on the table the minute you sit down (just as you’d be served pickles, lime and onion in an Indian restaurant), had been served before we placed the order. It was a good spread and I thought both the crisp, spicy-sour cabbage and radish kimchis, were perfect, the grilled mackerel was good, the shredded potato namul (vegetable) tasted indifferent, but the sautéed spinach was dull and tasteless.
A popular street food dish, the osam bulgogi packed a typically pungent punch, they use very good quality pork which, though well-cooked, lacked flavour and the squid was overcooked and rubbery. For bulgogi, the traditional grilled beef, thinly sliced slivers of beef work best which, after grilling should retain their juiciness and have a smoky, slightly sweet flavour. What we were served tasted like a really good stir-fry of shredded beef, but lacked the sweetness and nuttiness characteristic of the dish.
The overcooked squid showed up once again in the haemul pajeon. The Girlfriend noticed green chilies in it, which seems to be an adaptation for the local palate. On the whole, unremarkable. The minced pork filling of the jim mandu again was forgettable. While the dishes had been correctly cooked, Heng Bok doesn’t seem to be getting the balance of flavours right and nothing stands out.
The biggest disappointment was the dolsot bibimbap; it’s an extremely unusual rice dish that, like biryani and nasi goreng, is an Asian classic. For a regular bibimbap, you place sticky rice in a deep bowl, arrange vegetables and meats on the top in a colourful pattern and usually top with a fried egg which looks something like this. In a dolsot bibimbap, you use a hot stone bowl and instead of a cooked egg you use a raw one: the idea is to quickly toss the meats, vegetables and egg in the rice with the heat of the bowl cooking the egg into a sauce. It’s the same principle as a carbonara but with rice, not spaghetti. We were surprised by the missing egg in our bibimbap, only to discover that it had been placed at the bottom of bowl; so by the time it was served to us the yolk was already cooked hard so the bibimbap lacked its characteristic egginess.
We left unsatisfied, but I wasn’t ready to give up on Heng Bok, so I returned a few days later, alone.
The banchan this time was less elaborate, but the kimchi was just as good and I quite liked the fried mashed potato puffs.
This time I started with a jaeyook bokkeum (spicy stir-fried pork) and noticing that a Korean couple was quite happy with their meal decided to follow their example and ordered the haemul calguksu, a handmade flat noodle soup with sea food.
This meal was a definite improvement. The jaeyook bokkeum was really pungent and a bit overloaded with vegetables, but the pork was quite tender and tasty. Once again the squid was overcooked in the calguksu, the noodles were soft and slippery and the broth tasted more of egg than seafood. I also thought there was way too much potato and vegetables than required. Both dishes, I found tasted much better the next day (I packed my leftovers) and I particularly liked eating the calguksu cold.
If you haven’t eaten Korean food before, then Heng Bok is worth a visit, but if you’re familiar with the cuisine you might find that it doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. I suspect there are some well-made dishes on the menu: but for a meal that costs about Rs 1,000 per head I don’t think you should be hunting for them.
11/1, Kalpak Corner Building
Near Notan Heights
Tel: 022 26510044/ 022 26510077/ 022 26510088
|Invited by PR company||No|
|Guest of the chef/ restaurant||No|
|Restaurant knew I’m a food writer||No|
|Meal comped by the restaurant||No|