GREATER love hath no man than to bravely swig down his wife’s Soo Jeong Gwa, particularly when he’s persuaded her to go ethnic and order a can of Korean cinnamon punch.
“It’s got 31 grams of sugar and 130 calories,” she said in horror, reading the label after the first sip.
There was nothing for it but to drain her glass – my, it was sweet – and refill it from my bottle of Korean Hite beer. It’s brewed from rice with a clean taste and, although it would never beat a glass of Kelham Island’s Pale Rider, it’ll do.
We’re at Ginseng, Sheffield and South Yorkshire’s very first Korean restaurant at the West One Plaza, off Fitzwilliam Street. It opened last October.
I know nothing about Korean food but half an hour on Wikipedia left me with three facts: they ferment cabbage to make a kind of sauerkraut called kimchi, they eat a lot of noodles and dog meat is a delicacy.
Now I’m no dog hugger but I wouldn’t want to eat one and there’s no likelihood of them serving it up in Sheffield.
So, armed with this scant knowledge and an empty stomach, I went to see for myself.
Ginseng, seating 84 on two levels, is owned and run by a young chap called Lee Yin. Korean? No, he is Chinese but he knows a couple of blokes who are – his chefs from New Malden in Surrey.
“It’s very hard to find Korean chefs in England but New Malden has a population of 30,000 Koreans so I went to get them,” he said after our meal. He’s not far out on numbers – I checked.
For many Chinese Korean food is a bit like Indian cuisine is for us. They can’t get enough of it. So he opened the restaurant after already having a joint-share in a West Street food store and two Chinese restaurants in Nottingham.
Ginseng’s customers are mostly Chinese students, expat Koreans at the universities and a few intrepid English people.
The restaurant is on two levels with large pictures of Korean beauties in traditional dress and three ultra slim fish tanks for décor.
We were the only two diners at one point and after a friendly enough reception were shown a table, brought menus, some complimentary kimchi pickles and were left to it.
Now you might have thought that a couple of Westerners in a place which is still a novelty for Sheffield would have been given some helpful guidance as a matter of course. Or perhaps Lee thought there wasn’t any hurry.
We nibbled the pickles, mild spinach and cucumber and some pretty hot white radish (I think there may be gutsier stuff available), scanned the menu, looked blank and waved for assistance.
Kim suggested the kimchi pancake (£6.90) and the pork dumplings (£5.90) as starters and both dishes proved winners.
Koreans go in for stainless steel chopsticks and I wondered at first how we were going to cope with the pancake. But it had been cut across and down with little perforations and you could peel bits off like a postage stamp.
The pancake was a revelation, crisp on the outside, squidgy within, with little strands of the pickles we’d had earlier.
The dumplings, six little half moons arranged like a cartwheel, were a hit with my wife as they were light and crispy with a really tasty mince pork filling.
I found them slightly dangerous as every time I bit into one a hot jet of liquid spurted out. Both came with dips.
Each table is fitted with a mini barbecue grill in the centre because the Chinese go mad for Korean barbies in the same way we do for a chicken tikka masala.
Apparently you can either cook marinated meat yourself or get your waitress to do it for you but we were keen on letting the kitchen earn its keep.
I’d already mugged up that the stone rice pot is a Korean speciality so ordered one as a main course.
The mixed seafood one (£8.20) comes as a very hot bowl of steamed rice topped by prettily arranged sectors of seafood (squid and mussels), seaweed, vegetables, bean sprouts and kimchi with a fried egg on top, sunny side up.
Kim showed us what to do, using a spoon to mix everything up before the shortgrained rice cooled into a solid lump. On the side was a bowl of chilli and coriander paste which you either mix into the main bowl or add to your own for flavour.
It’s fun and it’s tasty although my vote would go for the stir-fry of rice cakes with fishcakes with hot chilli bean sauce (£7.80).
For rice cake, read fat cylinders made of glutinous rice, and for fish cakes think of the Thai variety but cut into strips so they can be stir-fried with cabbage and spring onion, bathed in a thick, fiery sauce.
Koreans, as with the Japanese and Chinese, rank texture highly so here you had slitheriness (rice), sponginess (fishcakes) and squeaky crunchiness (cabbage) all on the same plate.
We’d really enjoyed our meal, which packed a good deal of interest by way of taste and texture.
They don’t yet do anything in the way of desserts so I rounded things off with a pot of barley tea.
Think pearl barley and you’re halfway there.
Our bill came to £27.80 for food, with drinks and tea another £5.10.
Unit 12, West One Plaza, Fitzwilliam Street, Sheffield S1 4JB.
Open Mon-Thur 12-3pm and 5-11pm, Fri-Sun 12-11pm. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilets. Street parking.