You enter the place that was once home to that most venerable and tweedy of restaurants, Keepers, by a staircase that dives sharply down from street level, passing cheesy 1970s prints, until you enter a rabbit warren of beautifully designed subterranean rooms that can hold up to 80 diners. Once you’re at your table – in our case in a low-ceilinged room with expensive grey flower-motifed wallpaper complete with nooks and crannies – the place looks fine, but if the destination is more than passable, the journey’s a bit rubbish.
The fact every other diner was Korean persuaded us to give Shilla the benefit of the doubt. With a few minor caveats, that turned out to be an uncharacteristically sensible decision.
Our meal started with the usual Korean preamble, which consisted of small bowls of vegetables – tofu in a punchy garlic sauce, soggy courgettes, flaccid aubergines and lightly curried squares of potato – and the arrival of a Korean Hite beer (which was a source of endless desperate wordplays from my son, but which was actually rather good). Chatting over these hors d’oeuvre gave us a chance to practise with our chopsticks and look through the huge, 56-option menu and the dozen or so specials, which were broken down roughly into five groups: hot pots, rice dishes, chargrilled, noodles and the stir-fried dishes.
Determined to range across the whole menu, we started with dak go chi (skewers of chargrilled chicken with chilli, garlic and spring onion), gun man do (fried dumplings stuffed with minced pork tofu, spring onion and rice noodle), sae woo gu yi (chargrilled king prawns with chef’s ‘special sauce’) and kimchi jeon (fried pancake of kimchi – a Korean staple made of fermented cabbage – wheat flour, pork and spring onion.
The result was a dizzying array of flavours. The chicken thigh skewers were beautifully tender, studded with big globs of garlic and chilli, and served with an almost sweet, teriyaki-style sauce. The dumplings were fantastic and reminded me of outsize versions of Chop Chop’s specialite de la maison, which qualifies as an enthusiastic endorsement. The four prawns, which came whole and coated in a spicy hot sauce, were perhaps not the best I’ve ever had but they were still good enough to keep Lochie mucky and happy for the best part of half an hour.
Rounding off the four really decent starters was the fried kimchi pancake, which resembled a thin and extremely moist Spanish omelette packed with onion and absolutely no minced pork; not that it tempered my enjoyment of this popular Korean dish.
If the starters all hit the spot, the main courses were considerably more wayward. The dak gal bi (sizzling chargrilled chicken with Korean-style rice cake, sweet potato and vegetables) was fine, but the rice cake had a nasty cloying texture, which would have been OK were we able to avoid it, but that wasn’t possible. As for the ja jang myun (noodles in black bean sauce with pork and vegetables), whatever you do don’t order this dish: mine came lukewarm, with a tar-thick and insipid-tasting jet-black sauce, no pork and tons of onion. I barely ate a couple of mouthfuls. Far better were the go deung ouh gu yi (chargrilled mackerel) and the chicken teriyaki, which was simply superb.
And so, with no pudding options, we wound up and headed home, reflecting on a meal that had its moments, but which had been let down by one inedible dish and one which just failed to push our buttons. Perhaps even more importantly, we’d managed to expand our repertoire of Edinburgh restaurants, adding Korean to Lebanese, Sudanese, Brazilian, Malaysian and Vietnamese, to name but five styles of food on offer in the capital.
On that subject, with the demise of sister establishment Kokuryo in Glasgow, Shilla (which is named after the Korean dynasty that lasted nigh on 1,000 years until 935AD) now styles itself as Scotland’s only five-star Korean restaurant, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not even the capital’s only Korean eatery. On the Southside, Kim’s Mini Meals is run by a Korean mum and dad whose children came to Edinburgh University last year. The parents liked it so much they came too. Eating in their eccentric little restaurant is like sitting in someone’s front room, complete with ornaments, knick-knacks and armchairs, with dad dispensing recommendations to the mainly student diners.
That tiny homespun operation is different in scope and intention to Shilla, which sees itself as high-end and gastronomic, a self-imposed brief it just about lives up to. Shame about those stairs though.
13B Dundas Street, Edinburgh 0131-556 4840 www.shilla-edinburgh.com
Starters: £5-£7.99 Main courses: £8.99-£18