Diners who like their meat cooked ‘just so’ when eating out may have found their perfect spot with this neat Korean joint opposite the First Direct Arena.
Rather than have it cooked for them, patrons at Bulgogi Grill are presented with a selection of thinly sliced marinated meats, a hot grill built into their table and plastic tongs to serve the slices up once grilled to their satisfaction.
It’s a common concept at many Korean restaurants, though with Bulgogi being the first to open in Leeds it’s a novelty that may draw in a few curious punters. But after opening in August it’s clear the place has more to offer than the mere presence of a 300C grill.
Co-owner Jason Kim Lee, who hails from Korea, already runs a Korean BBQ restaurant in Cologne and is hoping to repeat the success in West Yorkshire as one of the eateries in the new Merrion Centre Arena Quarter.
Our visit on a Saturday lunchtime sees the restaurant’s façade partially obscured by scaffolding due to the refurbishment of the Merrion Centre building. This may account for the lack of customers, with only a couple in when we arrive, though there’s a steady stream of diners from then on.
The far-from-huge interior is full of clean lines, with a largely red and dark wood colour scheme, mosaic lighting and Japanese art on the walls. A minor complaint is the distance the red-cushioned bench seats are from the table, making me feel a little too far away from his dining companion. Though with a red-hot grill in the middle of the table a romantic lean across would probably constitute a health and safety risk.
Our waitress provides exemplary service and is clearly full of enthusiasm for the fare she is bringing out. And with jaunty Korean pop music playing in the background, the relatively few customers don’t detract from the atmosphere.
Though the meat, marinated in the restaurant’s traditional Korean Bulgogi sauce (and presented on the plate alongside two lonely-looking slices of white mushroom) is tender and almost sweet, it’s far from the only attraction on the table in front of us.
An assortment of delights are laid out, including thinly sliced leek with flecks of chilli, yellow pickled radish and kimchi, a fermented side-dish made with seasoned vegetables.
There’s a trio of sauces, with a sweet and spicy tamarind sauce a particular highlight, as well as sticky rice and a bowl of lettuce leaves.
The best approach is to cook a little of the meat on the grill and place it inside the lettuce leaf with a blob of rice, a daub of sauce and a sprinkling of one of the sides, before downing the lot in one or two bites.
Though not exactly graceful, it is a lot of fun and means you get a mouthful of crunchy lettuce alongside the pleasantly stodgy rice and the salty, sweet, flavours of the meat and sauce.
An advantage of having several choices of condiment and the option of having the meat anything between rare and charred to a crisp is that there’s a wide variety of combinations to try. A good option to get the best sense of the taste of the marinade is to have it with the lettuce by itself. And if you run out of any of the accompaniments, staff will be happy to bring more out.
The menu comes with a warning about how hot the domed grill gets, but it can’t just be me who is tempted to pick the leftover bits of charred meat off it as it cools down after the meal.
A small starter, a crispy fried gyoza filled with bits of meat and vegetables served with a sushi roll, with soy sauce and a dab of wasabi for dipping, is the ideal size to whet the appetite for what’s to come.
The lunch menu, for only £9.95 per person, offers some more exotic options including sea bass, prawn and squid, as well as baby back ribs in what the restaurant describes as its ‘delicious Korean Kalbi’ marinade. The two non-grill options, both stir fries, though doubtless worthwhile in their own way, seem somewhat surplus to requirements.
Evening visitors, for a rather more extravagant £22.95, can have a mixture of all the meat options with the starter thrown in. The quantities are such that, we are told, not many people ask for desserts, though this may be because there aren’t any listed on the menu.
We ask whether something sweet can be rustled up and our ever-friendly waitress returns with the choice of crispy banana fritters and sticky mango rice.
Both are impeccably made and perfectly presented with sliced strawberry as a nice additional touch on the plate. They’re so good in fact that it’s surprising they’re not on the menu, so I would recommend you ask for them.
Drinks-wise, as well as a small wine selection there are East Asian beers as well as Suju, Korea’s signature rice liquor, among the options.
Conscious of an impending 10k run through the streets of Leeds the following day, I plump for an excellent and sweet honeyed tea, first with ginger and then a second time with plum, both times with small pieces of said fruit at the bottom of the transparent glass.
The whole thing, including a glass of white wine for my dining buddy, comes in a few pence under £38.00 – a good price for a meal that combines flavoursome ingredients and an element of interactivity.
Given the dining reputation Leeds is building up, it’s a surprise in many ways that Bulgogi is the first restaurant of its type to try its luck in the LS-postcode zone.
Ideally placed in the shadow of the First Direct Arena to suck up some of the pre and post-show crowd, Bulgogi would be a good option for before a night out in the city centre or for anyone wanting something a bit different from their cuisine.
And while paying a restaurant only to cook the food yourself might be seen by some as money for old rope, it’s worth leaving the house for if you fancy expanding your culinary horizons.
Address: The Arena Quarter, 9 Merrion Way, Leeds, LS2 8BT
Opening times: Mon-Sat: Midday-3pm, 6pm-11pm. Sun: 6pm-11pm
Tel: 0113 3454510