Lacking a little Seoul
by Louise Lucas
THERE is little Korean about the dull green and formica room that houses the Korean Club, especially if you discount the dusty cabinet displaying half a dozen cobweb-annointed bottles and flasks.
The food, however, makes an honest stab at authenticity, and if there are certain anomalies - saucers of soy sauce, rice not sufficiently sticky, catch-all oriental crockery of blue and white in place of traditional stone bowls - that is the price of enjoying a less-than-renowned cuisine outside its homeland.
Barbecue is the lynchpin of Causeway Bay's unassuming Korean Club, as testified by the burnt brass cookers perched on each table. Indeed, the first impression is of venturing into a room recently invaded by a flurry of baby UFOs, their myriad eyes blinking up through the gloom.
Taciturn waiters pour water around the lip, then fish in trouser pockets for a lighter and ignite the barbecues.
Beers and tea (alas bo li , not the barley-fragrant soft green variety that Koreans, arguably, passed to the Japanese) are brought swiftly along with a dog-eared pink and plastic menu.
At first glance the barbecue yields a vast repertoire, spanning ox tongue, venison and spare ribs. But have a couple of contingency selections up your sleeve - the menu is more prolific than the larder.
Meat is brought on an oval plate, slightly anaemic in a puddle of watery blood, but tastes robust enough.
An impressive range of kimchi dishes is speedily assembled in an odd jumble sale selection of bowls.
Contents are good: the red pepper and garlic fermented cabbage is an honest eye-smarting rendition of the real Seoul food, bean sprouts and mung beans provide a watery crunch, greens may not be seaweed but provide the necessary jolt of salt, beancurd is soft and chilli-hot, and tiny fish give bite.
Unfortunately, the rustic rice bowls of Korea are replicated with a sad, thin lack of success.
Memories of raw beef, raw egg and a wealth of sliced and spliced vegetables atop a sizzling mound of rice - hot enough to cook the accompanying ingredients - whipped together with childish abandon and a wallop of blow-your-head-off chilli sauce retreat as a flowery china bowl of more or less the right ingredients appears.
Here the sum of the parts is not the same as the whole: the rice is too insubstantial, both egg and beef come ready fried, Indonesian style, and there is no searing heat to thoroughly warm the vegetable.
Chilli sauce, served in a child's beaker, was a little too solid, tasting too as though it had not seen the light of day for many a moon, and lacked the real killer heat of the Korean version.
Authenticity returns with the bill, under $200 for two and accompanied with two sticks of spearmint gum.
As the Koreans have the biggest per-capita consumption of garlic in the world, this nicety is no doubt appreciated by the throngs of shoppers as diners battle their way through the Causeway Bay crowds.
Korean Club, 4/F Fairview Mansion, 51 Paterson Street, Causeway Bay; Tel: 2577 0454. Hours: Noon-3pm, 6-11pm, seven days a week