I know as much about Korean cuisine as you can fit on to the side of a can of Chum, so before going to Kaya, London's smartest Korean restaurant, I took advice: a hastily scribbled crib sheet of translated Korean specialities, as well as a friend who likes the food.
As it was, the crib sheet did me little good. The menu is in Korean with English descriptions but no transliteration - so knowing that a pindaeteok is a lentil pancake and not a rare Pokemon card wasn't that much help. Nevertheless, we managed - plodding through the menu like two bewildered tourists lost in the Red Light district.
The restaurant is supposed to be at the grand end of the Korean experience. For down-home authenticity you probably want to head to New Malden, the largest Korean neighbourhood in Europe (you at the back there, sit up and stop fiddling). Busan in Highbury (7607 8624) also comes highly recommended with the added attraction, so I'm told, of Gilbert & George carving willies in the carrots - though presumably not on a nightly basis.
At Kaya the room is simple rather than elegant - once-white Marlborough-light walls, brightly lit with dangling bedsit-style paper globes. Its main claim to sophistication seems to be the beautiful and diminutive Korean women floating up and down the room wearing traditional costume. They glide up to the table, smiling meekly, swathed in billowing organza dresses - guaranteed to turn men into strong, silent, simpering wrecks and to make any female over 5 foot six feel like the incredible hulk. And just as green.
The friend I was with is supermodel slim and tall - I, on the other hand, come from the Korea of the North where women are women and men come up to their armpits, so I only think/italics/ I'm tall. And I wear heels. As a result neither of us could manage to squeeze our legs under the immovable table. Being the only two women in the place, we were also given the banquette of honour - sequestered in semi-Purdah between two trellis partitions. This was probably less embarrassing to all concerned. It enabled Jackie and I to do our "Ooh our Edna what do you suppose this 'fresh raw fish stuff' is?' schtick in private.
We ordered two of the daily specials - Modum Gui - a seafood stir fry, daintily performed by a sweetly shy, non-English speaking girl using a hub-cap grill set in the middle of the table. . It was very dry and consisted of two langoustine, four scallops, four shelled mussels, and fringed strips of rubbery squid that would double efficiently as bathroom sealant. There were also beansprouts, slivers of mushroom, a hunk of onion that might just about have been ready to eat if she was still cooking it now, and some rings of red and green pepper - again mostly indigestibly underdone. We also had Pa Jon. Jon means something flat - in this case a tasty sort of omelette, full of indistinguishable ingredients and lots of kimchi - assorted pickled vegetables, mainly Chinese cabbage.
Traditionally you have a selection of side dishes which seem to arrive at the same time as the starters - we ate yet more Kimchi - this time in a mildly hot chilli sauce - a piquant, sour, lip-pursing, yet pleasant, assault on the taste buds. Then there was seaweed roasted with sesame oil and salt - Kim - several tiny, sheets pierced on a tooth pick which resembled delicate, hand made paper. Naturally we had to have the fried dumplings - Kunmando - Korean for cellulite, we thought, but in fact just regular steamed dumplings. Jeot gal - Squid in chilli was minuscule but not very nice so the quantity was a blessing rather than a curse, Bin Dae - another pancake - this time with green beans was delicious, and Je-Yuk - Steamed pork with shrimp sauce was exactly that: Yuk. The pork was served cold sliced thinly, ringed with a thick rind of fat and served with discs of raw garlic. The accompanying shrimp sauce was hardly enough to wet a postage stamp, never mind support a whole plate of pork.
My spirits swooned when I noticed that Jason Priestley, an American teen-soap star and James Dean lookalike, currently in the West End - was sitting opposite us. "oooh look our Edna, isn't that him off the telly?" Sadly my friend doesn't actually have either a television or a teenager so my drooling was like trying to explain the point of air conditioning to an Alaskan. She preferred the coconut sorbet - more of an ice cream really, but lovely nonetheless - as was the mild and mellow barley tea we drank afterwards. I expect you are supposed to drink it with the meal but isn't that what beer is for?
On a note sourer than the curiously appealing kimche, the 15% service and a £2 cover charge certainly doesn't seem to stretch to hiring cleaning staff. The loo, through the out-of-tune Karaoke bar in the bowels of the building, was the nastiest I've been to this side of the Sinai desert.
Domestos, darling. Don't leave home without it.