I've never been particularly keen on the idea of hotel restaurants. Perhaps too much television is to blame, since they always seem to conjure up visions either of Fawlty Towers-style 1970s shabbiness or of the kind of pointlessly swanky establishment that might be frequented by Hercule Poirot. Needless to say, Bamboo, the restaurant at the Royal Oxford Hotel, puts a dent in such an ill-informed theory by virtue of being neither. It's Oxford's first - and as of August 2015 still only - Korean restaurant. The pale yellow-gold décor does, admittedly, look like a tired attempt to replicate some hotel-y grandeur (though it's unclear how many of the establishments Poirot patronised contained posters of Korean tweeny boppers advertising soft drinks). But Bamboo hits the spot where it matters: the menu is reasonably priced and the food is not at all bad.
For readers who have never tried it - and, considering the paucity of Korean restaurants in the UK outside London, that is likely to be a lot of people - Korean cuisine is usually characterised by a lot of short grain white rice and fresh, crunchy grated veg. Kimchi, a kind of fermented cabbage with a remarkable spicy-sour kick, features prominently. Meats are typically barbequed and dishes are often served in superheated stone bowls which allow for much of the cooking to take place at the table. Sound delicious? Good, because it is.
A meal at Bamboo kicks off with a couple of complimentary introductory plates: a small bowl of crunchy, fermented vegetables and some slices of water chestnut jelly. The latter, which is apparently made up of 80% water, tastes of extraordinarily little but makes up for it by being entertainingly impossible to handle with chopsticks.
My dining companion and I went for a wide spread of starters to make sure that we sampled a good number of the flavours on offer. The boiled dumplings - recommended to us as better than the fried version - were a good, reliable choice for their freshness and flavour. A warming, wholesome beef and seaweed soup worked well as comfort food (and at a pinch for £3.60), but would have massively benefited from additional seasoning. The pick of the starters was an enormous fried kimchi pancake with a nice mix of squishiness and crunch and just the right amount of spice. Eat it quickly, though: the dish is a little on the oily side and will not be nearly as appetising by the time it's tepid.
Probably the most (deservedly) popular dish on offer at most Korean restaurants is bibimbap, and neither of us could resist having it as a main course. Essentially a mishmash of leftovers, bibimbap usually consists of rice, mixed vegetables and marinated meat, served hot and sizzling in a large stone pot. A raw egg is cracked over the top and cooks at the table as it is mixed in with the other ingredients. Unfortunately the chef seems to have got cold feet when it comes to the last part: presumably out of fears of salmonella or confusion, our egg was already fried on arrival, somewhat detracting from the both the taste and the excitement of the meal. A more serious problem was a certain amount of blandness. Bibimbap should be punchy, flavourful dish, and although the one here was relatively tasty, this reviewer needed to add almost the entire plate of hot sauce provided to achieve the desired spice level. Adapting to local taste buds is one thing, but should never be at the expense of taste.
It's problems like this that may mean real Korean food aficionados will be disappointed by the offerings at Bamboo. Still, we left the restaurant well-fed, satisfied by the quality of the meal and not too much out of pocket. Don't go specially out of your way to eat here but otherwise - especially if you've never tried Korean food before - do go.