More than cod
This is the story of four schoolmates from Britain and their quest to prove that British food is more than just overcooked chicken tikka masala and undercooked meat pies. Sam Griffiths, Charlie McAlpine, his brother Jamie and Minsoo Lyo are all co-owners of Battered Sole, the iconic fish and chips restaurant in Sinchon, and now they’re taking their vision to Itaewon.
This month they’ll be opening a new joint in the hyper-competitive alley behind the Hamilton Hotel, but they’re certain their food, drinks, prices and location will put them in a good place to sidle up alongside the best foreign food in Korea. “One of the reasons we’ve chosen to do this in Itaewon is because we want to compete. …. We like the challenge,” Griffiths says. “We know there are some good restaurants out there, but we think we have a good restaurant, too.”
With the growth of their business comes the expansion of their menu; the new Battered Sole will move beyond fish and chips and into other British staples. Daily brunch will be key: sausage, bacon, eggs, tomato, baked beans and toast. “Getting a good breakfast in Korea is unbelievably difficult, unless you want to eat bibimbab,” says co-owner McAlpine. Eggs, bacon and sausage in particular are usually done very poorly. “With bacon, if you go to (any Korean store), the product you buy doesn’t resemble anything I would term as ‘bacon.’ Sausages are similar. ... It’s just a generic meat in a casing. And even with eggs, very rarely do you get a well-cooked fried egg, let alone a scrambled or poached egg.”
To remedy the situation, they’ve found a British sausage maker and have connected with a local butcher who can cure bacon to their exact specifications. They’re also going to make their own baked beans, but Charlie says none of this is terribly difficult. “You hear about these common foods and think, ‘How on earth would I make that?’ But the reason they’re common is because they’re quite easy to make.”
Gravy is another staple they’re looking to improve. “So rarely do you see a place making its own gravy,” he says, “which I think is a tragedy. When I get a plate of meat, it’s the thing I’m looking forward to most. If you can get fresh ham hock stock, add that to draft cider and you’ve got amazing gravy.” Charlie feels restaurants set themselves up for failure by going for complicated items without getting the basics down right. He wants the new Battered Sole to create simple food, but to do it properly.
At the same time, he’s also pretty excited about the new second-floor terrace, which will have sun exposure for at least part of every afternoon. Up there, the owners hope guests will be able to relax with a cocktail and share food together. “My idea of good al fresco dining is to have all kinds of cold foods, with some bread and a glass of wine or a cocktail,” Charlie says, “so we’ll be sticking to pretty basic things, like duck rillettes. With those, essentially all you’re getting is duck legs, cooked until they’re shreddable, whipped into a kind of pâté. Then you get your bread and spread it on there. Simple.” The idea will be to order several appetizers — kind of like a British tapas — and to enjoy them in a group. “You’ll order a selection and sit outside, enjoy the weather and eat different things,” Charlie says. People like to share food in Korea, “so these will be perfect. ... You can have a little taste of everything.”
There will also be a series of signature cocktails: Pimm’s (a very popular British concoction made of gin, Sprite and fresh fruit), a homemade dirty lemonade and a dirty Ribena, which tastes of blackcurrants and was named after a British cordial. “The beauty of these drinks is that you almost can’t taste the alcohol,” Griffiths says, something that matters most in the summer months. “You want something refreshing out of them, not anything that tastes too much like booze.” On tap they’ll have two types of Bulldog (a Scottish beer from Aberdeen) and a cider, all alongside up to 100 single-malt scotches to cater to what Griffiths calls the “single-malt wave” sweeping Korea. “That’ll be exciting for us, because we’ll be able to educate people about the different flavors and the different areas in Scotland where they’re from,” Griffiths says. He thinks it’s great that Koreans are getting into whiskey. “We want to encourage that as much as we can,” he says.
In spite of this range, the team is confident they can still keep things affordable. The boys are focused on cost; they say too many foreign restaurants are overpriced, and they’re determined that Battered Sole won’t be. “We’re making sure our prices are very, very reasonable,” Griffiths says, “so that people can afford to come regularly. A lot of the other restaurants — they’re good, they’re very good — but you would never go there on a weekly or biweekly basis, because you could never afford it. A lot of this food is the food of the coal miner, but no coal miner could pay what some other restaurants are charging for their meals.” But under their roof, main dishes will go for between 12,000 and 16,000 won, cocktails and draft beers between 7,000 and 8,000, house wine 30,000 to 40,000 a bottle and whiskeys from 7,000 up to 40,000 won a glass.
Griffiths says Battered Sole began in order to improve on some of the problems with the U.K. fish and chips industry, but here, in Korea. “We want to be flag-bearers for British cuisine, because we think British cuisine, when done properly, is as good as any other country’s food in the world.” With the new restaurant, they will take on an entire island of British food — and see how Korea likes it.
Itaewon station, exit 1. Walk straight down the street, take the third right and walk up the hill, passing OKitchen on your left and Bastille on your right. Battered Sole is located just beyond the intersection on the left-hand side. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter (@BatteredSole) for up-to-date info on hours and opening specials.