Restaurant review: Bibigo, London
58-59 Marlborough St, London W1F 7JY; 020 7042 5225; bibigouk.com
Sporting tortoiseshell glasses from 2020 optical store in Tottenham Court Road, Raphael Thierry is as stylish in appearance as the restaurant he manages.
Bibigo, the first European venue from CJ Foods, whose mission is to “bring Korean food to the world”, bears a clean décor of granite-like block walls, lattice ceiling referencing a northern Seoul palace, and oak tables met by Phillippine mahogany chairs.
Formerly a waiter at La Trouvaille and Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, sommelier at Zuma, then head sommelier at Roka, Canary Wharf, Thierry grew interested in Korean culture after meeting his Korean girlfriend, Juhee, five years ago while at Zuma together. When Roka’s head chef, Kim Yong Hwan revealed his intention to head up Bibigo’s kitchen, Thierry was keen to join him.
Compared with the Wharf, Soho offers new challenges. “I bear in mind that people can eat for next-to-nothing in some restaurants,”
he says, “and it’s a younger crowd.”
On my visit, menu developers ensure slick implementation of 25 new dishes. Alongside classic “Bibimbap” (mixed rice with vegetables and beef or tofu, £7) which lends the restaurant its name, 85% of additions are traditional Korean recipes, while the rest, such as grilled scallops with pollack roe and truffle yuzu, walk an East-West tightrope. Thierry explains that consultant chef, Leo Kang rose from starting as a sandwich maker in London to judging Master Chef Korea.
Considering the wine list’s brevity (of 34 bins, two-thirds are European; 16 are offered by the glass) Thierry sources from a large library, including: Liberty, Roberson, Robert Walls, Hallgarten Druitt and Dynamic. He says: “I like an eclectic list - to have fun and globetrot.”
Dinner opens with optimistically summery, balanced “Bibim-Martini” cocktail of soju (“burned liquor”), Campari, blood orange, jasmine, and supple, floating rice grains (£7.90).
With beautifully presented steak tartare woven with freshening pear and savoury soy, topped by quail egg yolk and tasty rice cracker, communion-like texturally (£10), Thierry selects creamy, almost Viognier-like Argentinian Torrontés (Bodega Colomé 2012, £5.60/125ml).
Thierry offers two wines with middle course of deep-fried, red chicken with spicy-sweet glaze and okra chips (£6).
“I’ve noticed Koreans prefer drinks such as soju, which amplify spice, while westerners want to reduce it.” Picpoul de Pinet (Domaine des Lauriers 2011, £4.90/125ml) adheres to being “light, crisp and mineral,” and “amplifies” spice. But Trimbach’s Pinot Gris 2009, which harks from Alsace, as does Thierry, (£7.20/125ml), indeed “softens and interacts with spices” and I favour it.
With Thierry’s favourite dish, Galbi Jjim (braised short-ribs in soy with Asian radish and chestnuts (£16), gently rested Bordeaux, Château Langlet 2008 is drawn from a selection for “marinated meats & BBQ - voluptuous, spicy, with tannic structure”. Thierry is proud to offer this at £7/125ml. Accompanying, acorn tofu, cucumber, kimchi (pert-tasting fermented cabbage), soy and sesame provide excellent textural foil (£7).
Thierry partners goldfish-shaped waffle crammed with red bean cream (£5) with Zuma/Roka’s Alessandro Marchesan’s 2009 Torcolato Gallio Cuvée Ale 2008 (£8.50/125ml) - a golden wine with a goldfish-themed pudding. “I also thought of Nyetimber demi-sec,” he says.
After dinner, Thierry shares photos of fermenting vessels on a recent Korea pilgrimage during which Thierry managed to craft his own makkoli at a dedicated school. Made from rice and sometimes wheat, the cloudy, sweet brew is 6-8% abv. “It tastes a little of Japanese Nigori,” he says. Thierry acknowledges that it has a cheap image, sold in Korea in plastic bottles. But he says: “I want to change that - and launch a pop-up makkoli bar in the UK.”