Pre-lockdown, Yori on Panton Street near Piccadilly in London was one of my favourite solo hideouts: low-key, dimly lit, dependably good. This now mini-chain positions itself as a Korean gogi gui grill spot, where diners cook their own meat on giant hotplates built into the tables. But Yori’s clientele of young, pretty, often Korean kids don’t stick to that, because there are also a lot of goon man du dumplings, bibimbab, ramen and corn cheese happening.
I’m yet to solve the mystery of Korean corn cheese, which is basically tinned sweetcorn, sugar and mayo baked with a generous handful of mozzarella. Someone told me it’s a play on Mexican elote via Koreans in Los Angeles, another said it was once a popular Japanese sushi side dish, while others still say it’s just testament to the fact that Koreans, like the Brits, have a wickedly sweet tooth. That would, at least, explain peach soju wine: if I was being full Jilly Goolden, the one that Yori serves is definitely redolent of icepops and Lambrini blush.
Still, even the idea of Yori’s pajeon (spring onion pancake) helped me through at least 80 days of incarceration. I got as far as mail-ordering corn starch before accepting that eating pajeon surrounded only by cats, rather than framed photos of indie pop stars such as Hyukoh and actors Ha Jung-woo and Jung Woo-sung, just wouldn’t be the same. Of course, now that I’m free to roam around London, I worry that nothing will ever be the same again. At 8pm on a Thursday, we set off to Yori’s new Covent Garden branch along streets so deserted, you could hear urban seagulls cawing on rooftops as we traipsed along rows of boarded-up shops, closed pubs and restaurants.
It is tempting to look at those strategically taken photographs of bustling Soho nightlife and believe that London has bounced back brassily. This really is baloney. There are pockets of buzz, true, but midweek, from Holborn to Drury Lane, the lights are off. Some good news: last week, the likes of Darby’s, Quo Vadis, Dishoom and Tonkotsu dusted themselves off and stood upright again. But the bits in between are still hazy. Cities without nightlife are disorienting. “We need to turn right at Balthazar – it’s next to The Play That Goes Wrong,” but both were closed, so my internal GPS went askew.
Yori Covent Garden is a fine example of the challenges small restaurants are facing. The waiter and I greet each other masked, and neither of us can hear the other. He’s pointing at a QR code, wanting my home address, and gesturing at a big bottle of vicious-looking hand sanitiser.
“No barbecue tables,” he muffles.
“Not a problem,” I muffle back.
We’re led to a small, scrubbed upstairs table featuring another huge bottle of hand sanitiser. The menu must now be accessed and ordered by QR code, but this part of the restaurant is a 4G dead spot. Serving staff across the country must be thoroughly exhausted by trying to make this situation jolly.
Yori’s spring onion pancake, although still spongey-centred and crisp in all the right places, is now half its original size, the once delicately battered Korean fried chicken arrives as a fearsome plate of spherical balls, and the shredded beef bulgogi is so lacking in its usual bold, caramelised, sweet pear, soy depth that it felt almost as if it had been spooned from a tin. We share a good, spicy-as-heck shrimp and calamari jeongol stew and range through sides of kimchi-laced bokum bab fried rice with an icy-cold mool naeng myun – buckwheat noodles in beef stock with radish.
Yori feels slightly more slapdash than it did in the old days, a bit like a boxer finding their feet again, but I’m grateful they made me dinner. Nothing is perfect anywhere right now, but at least hobs are on and front doors are open. This is only the start.