Jin Juu may translate to ‘pearl’ but make no mistake – this place is an absolute diamond of a restaurant and the fact that I keep thinking about it and having stomach-growlingly real flashbacks days after my visit shows what a memorable eating experience you’ll have there.
Barely a week into 2015, The Londonist published an article entitled ‘8 Restaurants That Will Be A Big Deal in 2015’ and top of that list was Jin Juu, stirring immediate excitement in my brain, heart & stomach for a few reasons; firstly, my infamous love of all things edible means that I’m instantly curious about anywhere that’s promoted as note-worthy; secondly, when I fell deliciously face first into a Korean BBQ burrito last year, it triggered the start of a mild-verging-on-obsessive quest for good Korean food in London; and thirdly, it looked like it might just achieve that culinary holy grail of being exciting, delicious and affordable.
The last point is important to me because much to my regret, I don’t have a bottomless fund with which to bankroll my food obsession and there are so many places in London that look wonderful but are simply priced out of the majority of people’s pockets.
Make no mistake, Jin Juu is stylish – from the Korean & British graffiti dragons adorning the walls to the frosted bottles lined up behind the bar like happy little soldiers ready to soothe away the day to the Steve Jobs quote hanging in the busy but ordered open plan kitchen, the vibe brought back so many memories from stateside travels…part NYC hip touched with just a hint of elite Seattle and finished with a nod to its too-cool-to-care London locale, it wasn’t weird enough to be found in Portland & not pretentious enough to sit downtown in my beloved LA. It was just very very cool in style but very very warm in its service.
Lunch here on a so-bitterly-you-want-to-wear-the-duvet-when-leaving-the-house-cold Saturday began with a sincere welcome from front of house staff who made friendly but thankfully not gushing small talk while taking coats, umbrellas and all the wintry paraphernalia that comes with surviving January in London. After we were wished in a heartfelt manner an enjoyable meal, we were led away from the ground floor bar area to a downstairs dining room that was dark but inviting and laid with beautiful metal chopsticks & undistracting dishes.
Not recognising a lot of the drinks on the menu means you either go with what you know which in a new restaurant is as pointless as searching for meaning in a Michael Bay film or you pluck up your courage and jump headfirst in which is how we ended up diving into a couple of soju shots, a pearly hued, rice based drink that upon first taste was thin & milky in flavour before something vaguely sweet & intensely sour burst through.
Several plates from the Anju small dishes menu were laid before us with swift service that was gracious & quietly eager to please. Watching Jin Juu Executive Chef & founder Judy Joo – alumni of Iron Chef, The French Laundry & Claridges among others – make her Korean fried chicken that very morning on ‘Saturday Kitchen’ had lit a fire in my belly that could only be put out with a serving of this crunchy, vodka-chilli-cornflour battered bird, the thighs of which were liberally dragged through glossy, dark puddles of sauce that pooled across my plate in a glorious combination of sweet BBQ meets sharp soy flavour before being deposited into my ravenous mouth with all the style and panache of a wide eyed toddler greedily tasting her first ice-cream.
This chicken is blissful. The intensely crispy coating provides a strong textural contrast to the unbelievably juicy chicken and, unlike so many other versions of fried chicken where you’re left with piles of crumbs and slippery chicken within seconds of biting into it, this batter actually stuck to it. The sauces were the kind of addictive that makes you want to smother everything you eat from this day forward with them and it took every ounce of my convincing to persuade J that no, it was not acceptable etiquette to ‘accidentally’ drop them in our pockets on the way out.
Good chips are as near to perfect snack food as you can get but when you bury them under something equally delicious like cheese, bacon or gravy they just get even better. Turn that dial up another notch and you have the brilliantly titled ‘Carnitas Disco Fries’; perfectly sliced potato snuggling under generous chunks of slow cooked pulled pork, sharp cheddar & tangy kimchi covered pickle slices. Eating fries with chopsticks was a first for us though I confess that at the end, the heavy golden spoons surreptitiously slid into our hands to ensure we got every scrap of good stuff. You’ll be pleased to hear that no sumptuously-soggy-at-the-bottom-from-the-juices chip was left behind…
Y’know when you’ve got so many tasty plates in front of you that you don’t know where to go next? That was our happy first world dilemma when the Gochu Bombs and Mandoo Dumplings arrived. Take a sweet, spicy, super juicy jalapeno, stuff its happy little chops with bulgogi marinated beef & pork and cheddar & parmesan cheeses, deep fry it then swoop it through creamy cool ranch and bite it into it making sure you get every component in your salivating mouth. Congratulations – you just got Gochu bombed and don’t tell me you didn’t love it. It’s smeared all over your face and the look of deep fried, crisp, succulent love is in your eyes.
While the flavours so far had lovingly smacked us round the face with punch and zing, the dumplings were an elegant & delicate variation on Korean spices; soft but firm which nicely opposed all the other dishes and superbly cooked with tender meat that banished forever all memories of pale, flabby dumplings that had come before them.
The great thing about sharing dishes apart from the communal sense of pleasure that comes when everyone round the table experiences something together for the first time, is that it doesn’t leave you too full for dessert. The fried chicken & kimchi fries might have been my starting reason for heading to Jin Juu but the pudding that completed our lunch was sublime. Head Pastry Chef Jaime Garbutt comes to Kingly Street via Marcus Wareing & Yotam Ottolenghi among others and this time spent in the ranks of the world class is obvious in a dish that’s effortlessly and unforgettably put together.
A flat Korean doughnut looking a little like the result of a night of passion between Irish potato bread & a Scotch pancake was stuffed with warm chocolate and tiny sesame seeds and sat jauntily atop a generous, oozing, melting hill of chocolate ganache. Crushed peanut & Nutella powder dusted each (mildly-fought-over) forkful and a slab of light, creamy, peanut parfait was served at exactly the right emerging-from-frozen consistency. Rich, dark and deeply rather than saccharinely sweet, this was like a classic Parisian dessert sleekly and creatively re-imagined for a modern world.
Jin Juu may be the first of Judy Joo’s restaurant adventures but it certainly won’t be her last. Showcasing bold and confident cooking where the passion for the cuisine shone, as an introduction to the food and flavours of Korea, it was utterly triumphant and I can’t wait to pay it forward by returning with another rookie to this part of the world.