‘Korean hag­gis is the sort of mad­ness you scrib­ble on a pad at 4am. I have to or­der it’

The Guardian - Weekend - - Rhik Samadder - Rhik Sa­mad­der @what­samad­der

Ionce met the brother of 1980s heart-throb Matt Dil­lon, and found my­self trans­fixed by his dis­torted fa­mil­iar­i­ties: same anvil of a head; eyes not brown, but blue and plead­ing; the fact his name was Kevin. It was a face cursed by com­par­i­son, and I can’t help but think of it as I sit in Tem­per City. A week be­fore my visit, Neil Rankin’s first Tem­per restau­rant, a Soho firepit where whole an­i­mals are slung on to coals and din­ers or­der meat by weight, picked up best new­comer at the Ob­server Food Monthly awards. His sec­ond ven­ture is a step into new ter­ri­tory – and a stum­ble into iden­tity cri­sis.

With the con­fu­sion of some­one in­vited to a retro, pan-Asian fu­sion bar­be­cue, I try to wrap my head around “squid and sam­phire pakora” and “dashi chip shop chicken”. “Korean hag­gis” is the sort of mad­ness you’d scrib­ble on a pad at 4am, so I can’t not or­der it. Weirdly, it’s de­cent: lung-y and oaty, with the pep­per­i­ness sub­sti­tuted by gochugaru chilli. It works for my com­pan­ion, too. C is a bald Chi­nese co­me­dian, and he knows Asian flavours. “It’s crazily rem­i­nis­cent of choong, my grandma’s gluti­nous rice with cuts of pork and shi­itake: that heavy umami thing.” I had hoped he’d make some cheap cracks about “Seoul food”, but ap­par­ently he’s “too good for that”.

The rest is di­vided be­tween curry and steak, not a clas­sic combo. They work fine as in­di­vid­ual nights at Wether­spoons, on Tues­day and Thurs­day, but even then they’re split by Wing It Wed­nes­day. This menu strad­dles both food groups. Sadly, the cut­lery doesn’t. Im­ple­ments are per­fect for Asian fare, yet try­ing to eat bavette with a fork and a spoon is like living an Ala­nis Moris­sette lyric. I roll a few slices by hand, rend­ing the flesh with my teeth, but C is part of a cir­cle of friends I see once a year, and I don’t want him re­port­ing back that I’ve gone feral. I ask for a knife.

His dish also con­fuses. Tan­doori chicken should be di­a­bol­i­cally red and black­ened by the fires of hell. Here, it’s soft and sauce-striped, pro­foundly savoured by smoke, but less so by curry mari­nade, and not what we ex­pected. It’s cooked well, but at £18 for a half-bird, I want no alarms and no sur­prises, please.

On the curry side, bet­ter news. Fish head is lovely, if mild. I pic­tured a de­cap­i­tated snap­per rear­ing from its broth, but these se­duc­tive chunks in aro­matic co­conut milk are more Cleopa­tra than Jaws. “Dry goat” sounds as ap­petis­ing as “old shoe”, but this heap of caramelised shreds, musky, toasted and look­ing like a mound of Amer­i­can to­bacco, knocks me back­wards. For meat lovers, it’s a bowl of the best crisp bits. Piled on to yo­ghurt and tamarind, and folded in roti with chut­ney and pick­les, it is sen­sa­tional.

Tem­per Soho’s open cube of a kitchen sur­vives, smoke waft­ing over dan­gling ducks, ribs and sir­loins work­ing their tans over the coals. There are booths, ta­bles, a low-light mez­za­nine, but the counter suits us, watch­ing the thalis get ready for their date with a curry. Each is a pleas­ing flavour wheel of sul­phuric za’atar tomatoes, fried potato wisps, chut­ney, turmeric pickle, a hot and vine­gary pep­per. There’s also an over­heavy roti, and what the wait­ress calls “piles of dust”: one sweet Bom­bay mix, the other in­sanely sweet roast co­conut. This thali ain’t big enough for the both of them. It’s in­ter­na­tional gin and tonic day, so we do our duty from a vast se­lec­tion. There are also “funny” cock­tails, in­clud­ing Chamomile The F**k Down and Mr Faulty, a sour basil daiquiri (see?) made with rice-wine vine­gar that re­sem­bles al­gae scoop­ings.

“Bana­nara­madrama” per­fectly il­lus­trates Tem­per City’s prob­lem: tex­tured ba­nana ice-cream, kept com­pany by fra­grant ba­nana frit­ters and cubes of warm, cin­na­mon­crusted ba­nana bread, is so achingly homely, I could curl foetal around it. But it’s ru­ined by a scat­ter­ing of foam ba­nanas, whose chem­i­cal bloom obliterates all else. I love foam ba­nanas, but here they’re a su­per­flu­ous gag, a wal­lop of slap­stick dur­ing a dec­la­ra­tion of love.

The Scot­tish chip shop thing, the provoca­tive fu­sions, the meaty machismo, the Ch­es­ney Hawkes: there’s so much go­ing on here, you don’t know where you are. While not as wrong­headed as Kevin Dil­lon, the ad­dled en­thu­si­asm could do with tem­per­ing. De­spite a new lo­ca­tion in the old fi­nan­cial district (or pos­si­bly be­cause of it), some­thing here doesn’t quite add up.

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