MY tongue is burning, my eyes watering, nose dripping… and it’s that awkward moment when I remember it’s an absolute taboo to blow one’s nose at the table in Korea.
We’re in Ginseng, Sheffield’s first Korean restaurant, and my lack of stamina when confronted by red-hot chilli is proving an embarrassment.
To be honest, it’s probably not even that hot by most people’s standards, but I like to be able to taste my food, so I usually avoid this situation. The problem tonight is that my knowledge of Korean food could be summed up on the edge of a chopstick – and the menu does little to enlighten me further.
“Squid namul (seasoned squid)” it says, with not so much as a hint of chilli.
Ginseng has opened at West One Plaza on the site of the short-lived Moo Lala (formerly the almost-as-short-lived Dosanj).
The man behind the project is Yang Li, born in China, living in Nottingham, who spotted a gap in the market in Sheffield.
He took over the lease, moved in the decorators and opened at the end of October. And he has clearly filled the niche he identified: on the evening of our visit the place is rammed with Oriental diners (always a good sign); ours are the only white faces in the room.
It’s looking very different from last time we were here. Then the walls were decked out in a vivid shade of green; now they’re black and grey with subtle downlighters.
The focal point is a line of oversize tropical fish tanks that divide the room in two. And the tables – slabs of polished granite, specially imported from Korea – each with a central smoked glass panel that lifts out to reveal a grill.
I’m always up for a new culinary experience, so this is a real treat – or it will be, once we negotiate our way through the menu.
A new version is on the way, complete with set choices, full descriptions and clear instructions, but for now it’s a bit like dining blindfold.
Appetisers range from the afore-mentioned squid to sea snails, pancakes, tofu and the ubiquitous kimchi (pickled cabbage).
Then there are ‘dishes’ (mainly stir fries), barbeques, casseroles, noodles, Japanese and ‘stone pot rice’. But only the main ingredients are given by way of explanation.
We admit defeat and summon help. Here’s another challenge: staff are smiley, helpful and authentic Chinese, but English isn’t their strong point.
In the end we point out a few things and trust to luck.
First to arrive is our drinks. A variety of beers and a limited selection of wines is on offer (from £12.90 a bottle), but we adhere to the spirit of the occasion.
Korean Hite beer is “like slightly flat lager”, I’m told. Sweet cinnamon punch makes a change from the usual soft drinks, but it’s too sweet to become a regular favourite.
Next up is a plate of finely sliced raw meat in some kind of marinade… no sign of the starters!
There’s clearly some mix-up, but we can’t make out exactly what, so we sit tight and wait.
Enter two arcs of glossy white china, each with three contrasting little red pots. One holds condiments – sesame oil, barbecue sauce and dry spices – while the other is ‘side dishes’: shredded radish, cubed radish and beansprouts.
Then come the starters. Pan-fried dumpling looks like a mini Cornish pasty: fairly bland, with a spring roll-type filling of shredded pork.
The seasoned squid, I’ve already mentioned. It’s a salad of lettuce, courgette strips and chilli garnish, with nicely-cooked squid – tender, not rubbery – in what looks like an innocuous sweet chilli sauce.
I’m on the point of expiry, or at least blowing my nose, when our waitress comes to my rescue with a jug of water.
She’s a third-year economics student at Sheffield University, it emerges, and is clearly used to people who haven’t a clue about Korean food.
While telling us about the restaurant, she whips the cover off the barbeque grill and soon has the marinated meat sizzling away.
She also deals with the stone pot of rice, another traditional dish that leaves us looking on helplessly.
It’s like a large pestle, with a regular spoon instead of a mortar. Inside the red hot bowl is a slug of nutty sesame oil and a generous portion of sticky basmati rice, topped with slices of mushroom, courgettes, carrot and radish, a layer of raw beef strips and a raw egg yolk.
The secret, we learn, is to fold all the ingredients together until they resemble a pilaf. The mixing combines flavours and spices, and also allows the hot stone to cook the meat.
By this time the barbecued beef is ready too, so we dip pieces into the oil and spices and eat them with the radishes and rice.
It’s great: not just tasty, but real food theatre too – with steel chopsticks to add the finishing touch and not so much as a spoon to cheat with.
Dessert doesn’t appear on the menu, so we finish our meal with a pot of roasted barley tea.
This is a very delicate, slightly smoky, but surprisingly pleasant beverage, served in a pretty tea set of pink and white china.
Dinner for two, including drinks and service is £45.
Verdict: Not just a meal but a real experience – which will be easier when the instructions arrive.
Open: Monday - Thursday 12-3pm and 5-11pm, Friday - Sunday 12-11pm
Ginseng, Unit 12, West One, Sheffield (0114) 327 1514