This year I decided to celebrate my birthday in style, which, in my world, means going to a restaurant. As I don’t like surprises on my birthdays (after all, I have another 364.25 days each year to try new things and get upset), I opted for Soban, a Korean BBQ restaurant which we visited before. I reckoned that Monday night is not the most popular time for people to go out so I didn’t bother myself with booking a table for three. Sure enough, when we arrived there was plenty of vacant tables and we occupied the best one on the terrace. Choosing an outdoor table in Soban makes perfect sense as not only it gives you a better view, but also saves you from suffocation if you order one of the BBQ dishes, which was our intention.
Having a BBQ at Soban can be described as an assisted self-service. The centre of a table has a recession for a burner. I don’t know what kind of fuel is used but the smoke has a pleasant sweetish smell. The fireplace is covered with a grill on which you can place pieces of raw meat. The burner and meat were brought almost immediately after we had made an order. I remember my first visit to that restaurant and the expression of profound surprise on the faces of our friends when they were provided with that DIY kit. In fact, you are never completely left to your own devices as friendly waiters turn up to check your cooking every now and then.
We ordered Special BBQ Platter for two ($49) which included an assortment of marinated meats and looked big enough to feed all three of us. However, the platter is served without any substantial side-dish which can fill your stomach. On the contrary, it comes with a spicy BBQ sauce and a variety of pickles that ignite appetite and keep you going until the last bit of meat disappears down your throat. Instead of a side-dish we had a leafy tomato and mozzarella salad ($10 on Mondays) which served as a lining between layers of meat. All this was accompanied by a bottle of 2006 d’Arenberg d’Arry’s Original Shiraz Grenache, well-suited for both chicken and red meats (on the previous visit I brought a bottle of full-bodied Shiraz and it didn’t go down so well). The corkage for BYO, though, amounted to half of the original bottle price – $8 for two.
Half an hour after our arrival we discovered a negative side of seating outdoors. Two trees opposite the restaurant were the favourite place for lorikeets’ nightly Sabbats. Those winged squabblers flew in en masse and in a few minutes ramped up the background noise to the level found on Friday night in Bavarian Bier Café. Nature lovers might find special charm in having dinner in birds’ company, but I was not impressed. To be fair to Soban, they did not exacerbate that natural noise pollution by an artificial kind, also known as music. (Not that I don’t like music, but some café managers tend to think that its quality is directly proportional to its volume. Protests do not help as they easily win the argument by increasing the volume even further.)
Overall, visits to Soban are quite entertaining. In other restaurants the sequence of events tends to be pretty much the same – painstakingly select a dish from a provided encyclopaedia… patiently wait for your order to arrive wondering if it was lost en route… eat. BBQ orders in Soban are quite different. It is easy to select what meat you want as there aren’t many choices, everything is brought almost instantaneously and then the most exciting part begins – throw raw meat on grill; choose a pickle to taste; panic when meat starts to burn; feel relief when a waiter changes the smeared, smoking grill; turn pieces of meat now and then; choose the one which looks ready; put it back having realised it is still quivering; burn your palate with freshly BBQ’ed meat; flush it with a glass of wine; discover it doesn’t help as meat was dipped in hot sauce, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.. All this turns a visit to Soban into a kind of an expedition where the route is mapped, but you don’t know what will actually happen along the way. And yes, recommended for bird lovers.