‘Stuck in the middle and confused’
Dining in the capital can be tricky – the heady amalgam of capitalist greed and stylish affectation.
The ever-present fusion, more at home in a neutron star than at a dinner table, progresses from intriguing to gimmicky to downright dreadful.
The press launch of Bavarian brewery chain Kraft’s third outpost was the culinary equivalent of throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks.
The media circus of free food, flashy magic (literally), and conflicting concepts begins, as many confusing nights do, with a dangerously glowing pinkerty drinkerty.
The hibiscus 75, with a raspberry floating in the centre like a gouged eyeball, is a product of the in-house gin by Jim and Tonic. This is a sustainable distillery separate from Kraft, which owes this recent limb of its empire to a partnership with Locke Aparthotels above.
Feeling dizzy? We haven’t even got to the card shuffling and Korean finger food.
As we sip our cocktails, we gaze around the bejewelled space. Through a low light and thumping upper level, with a nice curved steel bar, we were pulled subterranean.
Below is a mock courtyard with pink flying whale lights, matching the spray-painted pink iron chairs. Real plants unfurl from window boxes, and jagged patterns predominate in a pop-art take that is on trend if a little unoriginal.
Greeted by the grinning PR master of ceremonies, we are swept up into the tour of the brewery, which is contained in a boozy greenhouse to our left.
Charming blonde-haired Felix (a co-owner) explains his passion for bringing good German beer to London. We peer into casks and try to cover up our previous ambivalence to the muddy liquid as we are told the company’s origin story.
Following the German purity laws of 1516, four simple ingredients (water, malt, hops, and yeast) are all they use. By subtle tinkering and, in one wonderful case, literally smoking the barley as you do with smoked salmon, they make a range of beers.
Five weeks end-to-end bubbling away in the glorified basement, and then pumped straight up into the eye-shaped bar for the (sometimes) hapless punters. It has simplicity, which is lacking elsewhere in the evening.
We sip Hefeweizen Lotte and Smoked Helles Rolf, surprised by the sweet banana hints of the former and the latter’s smoke-infused depth.
Are we beer lovers? Thankfully we don’t have much time to ponder as after the tour is done, beer is never mentioned again. Poor Kraft.
Plopped back down under the mini-jungle, the space is heaving with influencers, along with two magicians sat next to us (Lord help me). Nineties rap bounces around in the background and I show my age by being excited by the green Victorian-style tiles behind us.
The food is Seoul in a Bottle, Jim and Tonic cover the spirits, and beer, as mentioned, has left the itinerary.
The food is mouth-watering.
Spring onion pancakes, like clouds of brittle batter, blend with my margarita riff remarkably well.
The shredded calamari is a stage-stealing fiend. These strands of cephalopod have such sweetness that they bring a tear to the eye. Tell me your secret!
Starters done, bring on the banchan. Lotus root is a fragrant but minuscule morsel, braised in a pool of soy sauce. It is paired with a plate of sweet, sticky anchovies – an odd but delicious pile of fishy candy. They are called “petite”, which we assume to mean juvenile, but they taste so good I don’t even mind the infanticide. A sangchu salad has a spicy kick that is badly needed after the marine dessert, and although the portions are tiny, the prices aren’t too galling.
Things begin to go south here. A performance is promised upstairs, but the event is already running late and cocktail orders are creeping along at a glacial pace.
Something utterly astounding happens (and not in a good way).
We are sat on the edge of a bench-like sharing table (inner cringe). The magicians are friendly but then they are paid to be.
One main of sweet and sour aubergine is deposited between all of us; there is an awkward stand-off, chopsticks paused like daggers, waiting. Who will stake claim to the dish?
We ask for our own plate and are rudely told that these mains are for four people, whether they know each other or not apparently. Covid who?
Without anything more than a spoon each and chopsticks, we are expected to share with complete strangers. I am speechless… for all of five minutes.
We never get the aubergine, kindly and slightly bitterly conceding the dish to the magic men; after all, they have hard work ahead with cards and all we have is a night bus.
The Galbi-Jjim arrives, and we tuck in but are unable to enjoy ourselves as our neighbours look over ravenously. Just as I am trying to pass the delicious half-eaten slow-braised short ribs over, another arrives begrudgingly at our end of the bench. Someone got the memo.
Post-complaint, the mains arrive per group but aren’t particularly memorable. A bulgogi bibimbap is so small and simple it feels like an afterthought, and a rose tteokbokki (basically Korean gnocchi) is overpowered by gochujang sauce, sickly with too much cheese (discarded by most tables).
More food is planned, but emboldened by my Japanatten cocktail – an exciting play on the Manhattan – I put my foot down.
It is 9.30pm, the singer has gone home, we are nowhere near dessert and they are talking about off-menu Korean chicken? I step up as gracefully as I can manage, almost standing on a Prada handbag that is discarded on the floor like a bag for life.
With magicians to the left of me and influencers on the right, here we are stuck in the middle and confused.
All I want is to go home and have a nice cheese toastie, where all the ingredients, concept, and branding are made by my very own hands.
London, for once, I say ‘You win’. I feel old, perplexed, tired and hungry. Good night and good luck!