106 Burlington Rd
New Malden. Surrey. KT3 4NS
Telephone: 020 8942 7184
Opening Hours: noon-10pm Mon-Sat; 5.30-10pm Sun
Nearest Rail: New Malden BR
Average price per person: £15
We walked into Yeon-Ji with no expectations. We left immensely satisfied and ready to adopt the owner as our own mother. Such is the experience at this eating establishment. Plain and simple décor with faded gold wallpaper. A few red strips of paper with Korean characters proclaiming the specials of the day. The real strength of character is in the food and its owners.
The menu is quite simple and included all you would expect of a Korean restaurant – the BBQ, hotpot, hot stone rice. On closer examination it provided more unusual items, to those unaccustomed to Korean cuisine. Lamb entrails, raw minced beef, pancakes, fish cheeks. For those with a delicate predisposition, they do offer the standard parts of various animals as well.
We left Tiger Wee to do the ordering. He does it well. The BBQ section was totally in Chinese and Korean characters. Otherwise, the rest of the menu had a crude translation of English beside it. Most dishes were £10 each, with hotpot dishes £15 each.
The restaurant seems to be owned by a husband and wife team. The husband, strangely enough, stayed behind in the kitchen and prepared the food. The wife, god bless, scuttled around from table to table acting as the only waiting staff. You might imagine a diminutive and docile Korean lady scuttling around. Nothing could be further from the truth. At first sight she looked like a Korean lumberjack or maybe one of those competitors in the World’s Most Strongest Man. Deeply tanned creased face, hair harshly pulled back, forearms of Popeye’s, rough mammoth sized hands. She was dressed in a large old blue T-shirt stained by sweat and stains. You can tell by one glance that this woman has worked hard all her life – real salt of the earth kind of woman. A woman who will always tell you how it is and how it’s gonna be. No arguments. Her English isn’t so great, the husband’s is a little better. She gets her point across with hand gestures and if necessary, she’ll grab your head and shake it – in a motherly, gentle manner. All in good fun.
First up was the oyster pancakes. Neatly lined in rectangular pieces it reminded me of a stepped ploughing field for some reason. Lightly browned on each side it looked deceivingly quite light. Even though we had ordered oyster filled pancakes, these had prawns and fish in them, with very few oysters. A nice starter considering we were all starving.
Next up was the brain tester. Why brain tester? Well, it tests whether you can mentally block out the traditional way of eating things and still enjoy your meal. So here it was. Red raw stands of minced beef with a raw egg on top, sprinkled with something like pine nuts, surrounded by fresh julienned cold vegetables. Of course, all the ingredients has to be mixed well before tucking in. A bit apprehensive, I took my first bite. It was gorgeous, cold, smooth and sweet. Each ingredient was utterly fresh.
Lamb tripe was also delicious and cold, presented in a kimchi like chilli sauce.
We ordered pork belly, beef and lamb BBQ. Each was cooked in front of us on gas fuelled sizzling plates. I wouldn’t go for the pork belly again. Not a lot of taste. The beef and pork slices however were tender and bursting full of flavour. The BBQ came with four complimentary, generous-sized side dishes of kimchi, spinach, shredded radish and turnips.
The hotpots came next. We were ready to bust. Some of us had ordered rice, but after the BBQ, quickly retracted their orders. It was alot. We had ordered one vegetable and one pork hotpot. Strangely enough, both hotpots had meat inside as well as tofu and vegetables. I guess something was lost in the translation. The stock of both pots were very different though. One was definitely better than the other – more taste and depth. Reminded me of the stock used when making those instant Korean noodles packets. An unjust comparison I know, but something like it.
We had booked a table for nine people for 7pm. We needn’t have bothered. When we arrived, only one table was occupied by two very chilled out men, drinking sake and savouring the hotpot in front of them.(Notice the good ol' Asain 'leg up'.)
By 9-9:30pm, people started coming in. By 10pm when we left, the place of packed and jumping with activity. All were Korean saved for us and another table. As you can imagine, it became harder and harder to get the waitresses attention. Which was OK…there was only one of her…and she was at max capacity.
As we bid the waitress farewell she blew us a kiss with one meaty paw. She made us promise to show her the photos we had taken. We promised faithfully. Two reasons to go back now – definitely for the food and for the warmth and friendlessness of the people. I can only sum up the experience as being something like dining in your grandma’s kitchen. Warm, authentic and reassuring.
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