Elaine Lemm finds a tiny hidden gem tucked away in a small courtyard in York. Picture by Mike Cowling.
After 20-plus years writing about food in Yorkshire, I thought I had covered most bases. That is until I sat in a tiny restaurant, tucked away in a courtyard off Fossgate in York, staring at pictures on a menu trying to figure out what to eat. This was my first foray into Korean food. Having spent holidays in Asia and the Far East, I know this is the way a menu is presented but the pictures really were not much help being those glossy, slightly fuzzy images of neon coloured food.
The restaurant in question, Oshibi, is tiny. It occupies what would, in other guises, be a dining kitchen. There was an air of restrained domesticity with a few pictures on the wall and a handful of tables, all of which were occupied. This is a busy place. We, apparently, were lucky to get a table as throughout dinner they turned away at least 20 hopeful walk-ins.
There is no starter-main delineation on the menu. Most dishes are around £9-£11 each, and it is simply a case of ordering several and tucking in. I did ask if there was any expected order and was told to choose whatever I felt I wanted to eat. We found this liberating, exotic and fun.
Specialties include beef bulgogi (Korean sesame steak), nakji bokkeum (stir fried octopus), and yachae mandu (pan fried vegetable dumplings) among the many dishes on offer. Kimbap (Korean sushi), as a fan of all things sushi, is more recognisable. The maki rolls are made to order with steamed white rice, diverse fillings and wrapped in dried seaweed. There’s saewoo bokkeumbap – fried rice with prawns, stir fried thick, udon noodles in a hot pot, and delightfully sounding jigae; a stew-like dish, again either with fish, meat, seafood or vegetables.
One dish I was determined to try was Korean classic kimchi, which is picked, spicy, fermented vegetables, though they can also be simply salted and seasoned. In Korea, there is usually at least one variety of kimchi eaten at every meal.
As a Korean novice, I wanted to give nearly all the menu a try, but the sheer size of the dishes made that unwieldy. In the end, we settled on four dishes; one seafood, pork, vegetarian and beef. Our waiter seemed a little startled and politely asked if we really wanted all four? We should have taken that as a warning.
In what I think was deference to our Europeanism, the dishes came in two sets. First off, ojingo tuigim, which is a delightful dish of crispy tender squid wrapped in a cobweb-light coating of tempura batter. Gogi mandu was our pork choice, and on the menu was described as pan-fried pork dumplings. This, I felt, was a disservice to the dish. Instead, these are tiny pasty-shaped pastries with a light and beautifully seasoned filling of pork – a dish less like a dumpling I can’t think of.
Despite our first two dishes still not eaten (nothing to do with quality, more to do with the pace) the next two arrived. A vegetable jeon (pancake with vegetables and tofu) was my choice and beef bulgogi came from across the table and not forgetting my long-awaited kimchi. The kimchi was fine, but I am a fan of fermented foods. I would have appreciated a little guidance on what to eat its with, but everyone was so busy it seemed rude to ask.
The beef came as tender, spicy strips with a smattering of sesame, spring onion and green salad and with all four dishes on the table, we now grasped the all-in method. The variety of textures, tastes, heat and sweetness really played together well – perhaps we should have listened.
There are no puddings at Oshibi – shock, horror but no. There is simply a range of ice cream from Yee Kwan, the renowned handcrafted ices made in Sheffield. Equally, there is a limited drink menu too but that too is not a problem. The Korean Hite Ice Point beer more than matched the food, and for wine lovers, there is a simple range of popular wines.
Oshibi was an extremely pleasant surprise. On all fronts, it defied what could have been irksome somewhere else. The friendly but slightly disjointed service is delightful; nothing is too much trouble.
The food is fresh and cooked from scratch, resulting in diverse, exciting, beautifully balanced flavours. This tiny restaurant is one of those gems I always dream of finding even though I then selfishly struggle with wanting to keep it a secret. Well the secret’s out now, just hope you can get in.
Oshibi Bistro, 9 Franklins Yard, Fossgate,York,YO1 9TN. 01904 593649, www.oshibi.co.uk. Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm-3pm and 5.30pm to 10pm.