Le Cordon Bleu Korean barbecue
It doesn't give much away street side. A simple sign bearing perfunctory calligraphy and its presumed English translation – CHARM –with a vanishingly small KOREAN STEAK HOUSE below.
Step inside and the uber-cool stripped-down Zen décor feels contrastingly cosy. Turns out the food & drink doesn't shrink from strutting the style either.
The name isn't what you think: "charm" is Korean for "truthful". Hence, owner-originator soon-to-be-mother Lauren Kim's m.o. to serve "simple, natural, truthful food."
She opened Banjoo, her first restaurant in Bangkok, three years ago, followed by a second branch on Thonglor. Charm (ground floor Novotel Bangkok Sukhumvit 20), is her third venture. She's also behind Sot Soju Bar high-end soju bar on the hotel's 8th floor.
Her passion began following her grandmother, herself a successful restaurateur. She started cooking in junior high and graduated Le Courdon Bleu Bangkok 12 years back.
"The French stuff and science helps a lot," she says. "But the more I did Western food, the more I wanted to show people real Korean cuisine."
The healthiness of the cuisine clinched it. Instead of oil, salt and sugar you get fermenting, marinating and grilling while for sweetness, Lauren twists juju berries, pears and leeks.
Korea's kimchi obsession (there are over 100 varieties) is rooted in the weather. During the winter it's impossible to dig, so veggies have to be pulled before the freeze and kept edible by fermenting. The longer it's fermented the stronger the flavour. Fermenting is also healthy as it breaks down cholesterol while preserving nutrition. Plus it's uber-umami and balances otherwise meat- and seafood-centric meals with lots of fibre.
That's good because Charm's centrepiece is an homage to authentic Korean barbecue, or yaoe pati. What's special? Notice the periscope thingies dangling from the high ceiling at regular spaces. They're actually powerful vacuums suspended over the exquisitely recessed BBQ pits that grace every table and even the bar counter. You're probably familiar with extractors inside the pits but they just suck out the smoke before it enhances the viands. This way everything is well-smoked – and yet the smoke doesn't get in your eyes, nor musses your hair.
Every element of the ritual, from keeping the charcoal at the right temperature with timely replenishments, to replacing side dishes as they empty, is precision executed by on-point staff.
Just as well when you're dealing with some of the finest cuts of beef on the planet. Offerings range beautifully marbled Japanese wagyu striploin to thick Australian wagyu tenderloin (B1,450/180g). The pork chop with spicy sauce is another treat.
Start with light oil-basted garlic and eringi slices on the griddle and add mouthful sized morsels of meat that cook quickly as one huddles primal camp fire style.
Lauren personally prefers the less marbled Aussie cuts and favours the mild flavours achieved by wet- as opposed to dry-ageing.
Dippings array red bean paste, light and sweet naturally-dried Korean salt, and soy sauce house-blended with vegetable stock, garlic and curry powder.
Plus "banchan" side dishes of which kimchi is the commonest. Here it comes in lumps of leek, plain white and mildly-spicy red. Plus potato cubes, egg roll, and homemade tofu. There's also lettuce to wrap the meat in with cucumber, carrot and sauce, and green salad with sesame dressing.
Besides these, the fully illustrated menu includes appetizers, soups, rice and noodle dishes and even a wagyu steak burger (550).
Highly recommended is rice flour-crisped Kimchi Pancake (350) with octopus. There's also an omelette style seafood pancake (420).
Or how about Korean Beef Tartar (490), sesame-marinated beef mixed with egg yolk accompanied with delicious crispy tacos?
Kimchi Jjigae (320), with brewed, aged house-made sour kimchi, is one of those soups that starts tentatively and ends addictively. It arrives with a sousvide-cooked egg on top and unfolds as a profusion of shellfish, crab, prawn, tofu, mushroom, veggies and mildly bitter white bean sprouts. The secret of the stock is lots of combu seaweed and dried fish. Served with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl it's accompanied with a bowl of tasty fried rice infused with fermented whatnots.
All this eaten off gorgeous earthenware that Lauren, also adept at ceramics, designed and had made locally.
Koreans don't do desserts but food this good merits making an exception. Hence homemade crispy waffle with homemade vanilla ice cream, maple syrup, cream, cherries and strawberries – a slam-dunk.
It would be remiss not to mention the wonderful homemade Ginger Ale (160) blended with passionfruit, apple, pears.
Charm's Korean customers oddly tend to go for wine with their beef whereas "foreigners" want to try the premium organic soju – strictly no additives – that Lauren imports directly. It's basically a rice spirit but with a bourbon-like version derived from maturing in oak barrels as well as different proofs that give different tasting notes. They range from relatively mild 25° proof to 53° which lends itself to a few cocktails up on the 8th. Prices start at B1,100, or B190 per shot. Korean beers include draft Sapporo (190) and bottled Cloud (180) and Hite (160).
Brick, cement, wood, clay and glass. The design is elemental yet manicured. Three private rooms are available. Sultry jazz provides the equally palatable soundtrack.
- Lunch: 11-2.30
- Dinner: 5.30-midnight
- Tel. 080 008 8473