JAE at Untitled, London: ‘Seriously punchy Korean cooking’ – restaurant review

Editor’s note: we have decided that, while restaurants remain open, we will continue to review them

JAE at Untitled, 538 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AH (07841 022 924). All dishes £4-£12.50, beer £6, cocktails £9.50, wine from £36 a bottle

There’s lots about Untitled, a bar in Dalston, calculated to drive people like me who don’t think they’d want to go there, completely nuts. Start with the name. It’s called Untitled, but it isn’t untitled, is it, because it has a name. That name is Untitled which… Oh never mind. It has bleak, rough-plastered walls and a front space dominated by a huge communal table where I imagine, in better times, complete strangers would have sat elbow to elbow, being annoyingly friendly. Music plays, quite loudly. Not so you have to shout. Right now, we don’t hold with shouting, but the music is there, battering away. Out back, there is a moon garden. That’s what they call it. I won’t argue.

Untitled belongs to the revered cocktail guru Tony Conigliaro, and has always seemed first and foremost to be a bar, although there has often been food. Since it opened in 2018 it has hosted a series of short chef residences, which is another reason for me to stay away. There’s little point you being told about all the things you could have eaten there from a short-lived menu, but can’t now because it’s gone. As you’ve worked out by now, I didn’t recognise Untitled as being designed for me.

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‘The strident fermented chilli paste makes everything bounce and sing’: pork belly ssam.

Then they announced JAE, an extended Korean-influenced residency from an intriguing chef named Jay Morjaria. It’s running until at least Christmas and probably beyond, from Wednesday to Saturday each week. It was time. And now you’re expecting a classic bait and switch, with me announcing I’d got the place all wrong. I hadn’t. Untitled really isn’t the sort of place in which I’d choose to spend my time. I’ve never been a big one for rough plaster. I love a bit of brutalism, but too much of it makes me think NCP car park. It’s a short lurch from there to recalling the blistering scent of an NCP car park stairwell. That’s never an aid to digestion.

Their piped music is not my piped music. I have no need of a moon garden. And it really is primarily a bar, as signalled by the Korean word “Anju” at the top of the menu. It references food designed to be eaten alongside drinks. The list of cocktails at £9.50 a pop is much longer than the wine list where the cheapest bottle is £36. Asahi is £6 a pint. And yet, Morjaria’s heavily plant-based, tightly written menu is very good value with the majority of dishes priced between £4 and £8 and nothing above £12.50. Plus, behind the socially distanced communal table, is a dining room. I am at ease there.

Morjaria is a restless soul. He ran one of London’s first vegetarian cookery schools, Sutra Kitchen, before appearing on ITV’s Million Pound Menu with an earlier iteration of his Korean and Japanese dishes informed by his research and travels. He won a chunk of investment, though that plan doesn’t appear to have come to fruition. Instead, he has worked London’s guest-chef circuit.

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‘Roasted until the skins are chewy’: aubergine, coconut and lime sauce.

Now he’s here with a menu so succinct that we manage most of it. There is a plate of his pickles and kimchi to start, in candy shades of pink and orange. Alongside is a scoop of whipped butter blitzed with spring onions, so it’s the colour of pool-table baize. There are slices of crisp-crusted sourdough from Dusty Knuckle bakery, round the corner, with which to do that butter justice. Make sure your companion eats some as well. It stays in the memory and on the breath. Chargrilled friggitelli peppers, looking like padron’s grown-up, streetwise cousins, come with a dollop of smooth, scoopable, silken tofu flavoured with lemon and a jolly sprinkle of Morjaria’s take on Shin Ramyun seasoning (the spicy seasoning mix for instant ramen noodles).

Chopped aubergines are roasted until the skins are chewy and then dressed with a thick coconut and lime sauce, with fried panko breadcrumbs for extra crunch. We have a cooling noodle salad in a sweet-sour gochugaru dressing, expertly designed for slurpage, topped with finely diced pickled cucumbers and a bowl of completely compelling new potatoes that have been burst from their skins and fried until crisp, with a sesame dressing for lubrication.

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‘Instantly gratifying’: chicken sandwich.

From the meatier side there is a killer chicken sandwich, made with deep-fried undulating thigh, in a soft, sweet bun with curry mayo and pickled cucumbers. There’s a lot of this about at the moment and there’s no point trying to pretend it’s either elegant or sophisticated. It’s far too instantly gratifying for that. Crunchy things inside soft buns are always a winner. This is a very good version.

The most recognisable dish from the Korean repertoire is the pork belly ssam (with mushrooms for non-meat eaters). Blocks of braised pork belly have been glazed with a sauce leaning heavily on gochujang, the strident fermented chilli paste that makes everything it meets bounce and sing. There’s rice, pickles, extra sauce and lettuce leaves to wrap it all in – the meaning of ssam. It’s an engrossing, jolly plateful for £12.50.

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‘So intense’: chocolate ganache.

Less recognisable is a daily special of bone marrow roasted under more gochujang, with shards of toasted rice cracked up from the bottom of the rice cooker. Some may not appreciate the wobbly brain-like texture. I do. It’s a version of Fergus Henderson’s famous bone marrow dish, after a gap year backpacking across Asia. There are two desserts, each at £4. I rather wish there was just one, at £8. The thick block of chocolate ganache with miso caramel is so intense it leaves me feeling like I’ve been left unfairly with the box of chocolates, despite everyone knowing I have no self-restraint. Paired with the citron tea sorbet from the other plate, however, it all balances out nicely, and I stop hating myself. Result.

Service, mostly from waiters in identical patterned shirts and masks so you can’t tell them apart, is chipper and enthusiastic. Occasionally, dishes are brought to the table by Morjaria himself, a dashing, intense figure in a leather apron, with a close crop of perfectly poised silver-fox grey hair. It makes me feel a little less out of place. I may not be the target demographic, but I am not entirely alone here among the youth. You may decide to come here because of all the things I’ve described. You may come in spite of them. Either way you’ll get some seriously punchy and diverting cooking.

News bites

Beak, a micro-brewery in Lewes, East Sussex, is running a series of chef take-overs of its taproom space each Saturday. So far they’ve featured everything from wood-fired local game to the cooking of Malaysia and Uganda. Forthcoming events include Karen Chepkurui cooking Kenyan dishes, various takes on tacos from Brighton stalwart Casa Azul and next Saturday, an eclectic menu from Lewes-based catering and teaching kitchen Seven Sisters Spices. Individual dishes tend to cost between £6 and £9 (beakbrewery.com).

On 12 November The Fisheries, a co-working space in London’s Hackney, will host a dinner in aid of The Pilot Light, a project designed to open up the conversation around mental-health issues for employees in the catering industry. The five-course autumnal menu, cooked by chef Andrew Clarke, will be served family style to groups of up to six. Tickets cost £50 a head and are available from eventbrite.co.uk.

And it’s a big hello to Caribbean operator Rudie’s Jerk Shack, which will open a full-service restaurant in Brixton’s Market Row in November, to go alongside their two take-away only outlets in Shoreditch and Borough Market. The menu includes both jerk chicken and jerk pork as well as curry goat and peppered shrimp (rudieslondon.com).

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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