Not all Korean barbeque is created equal; Jang Ta Bal would have to rank as one of the best I’ve tried in Sydney.
You’ll find it by walking through a doorway ringed by red neon and marked by a rotating gobo projection onto Liverpool Street. Take the elevator up one floor and emerge right at the butcher – a dedicated chef solely there to cut up everybody’s meat. From the glass display fridge, you can see meat is taken very seriously here.
Meat quality is one of the two things that sets Jang Ta Bal apart, particularly as it includes a range of premium wagyu from Jone Foods.
The second thing is the quality of the service, led by the vibrant and quirky Jay Jo. Personable, high quality service is rolled out across a confident, mostly male, floor team, who are not afraid to lean in and take over cooking to ensure you do your Premium Wagyu Scotch Fillet ($35) justice.
And you need to do it justice: it’s a beautiful, juicy piece of wagyu beef with fat that will caramelise beautifully on a sparkling clean barbeque plate.
The slickness and attention to detail is the product of an experienced restaurateur, Chris Chang, who kicked off the Jang Ta Bal story in Strathfield almost a decade ago.
At his fledgling city restaurant, the experience of barbeque is separated from the more extensive Korean bistro menu, that you can consume in his Byul-Bam outlet (formerly called Jangpo) downstairs.
The upstairs Jang Ta Bal menu plucks the eyes out of the wider selection of Korean dishes to complement your meat-focused meal with a small selection of dishes. Your opening must-eat is the standout Seafood and Shallot Pancake ($16) dotted with plenty of tender little calamari loops, tentacles and blackened shallots.
It’s probably all you need to save room for Super Spicy Cheese Pork Ribs ($40) as a closing dish.
Served in either mild or spicy, it's so good, it drew me back to this restaurant to eat it again (this time spicy), a week after my initial review.
Dotted with tteokbokki (rice cakes) and a lake of melted cheese, it's punishingly hot but oh-so-tasty that you'll throw caution to the wind and down a lot of TsingTao Beer ($8), GoodDay Calamansi Soju ($15) and Kook Soon Dang Makgeolli ($13) - a soothing rice wine - to make it work. The kitchen took sympathy upon us and sent out a complimentary Egg Soup ($10) to ease the pain. It was a bit on the sulfurous side (the eggs could be fresher), but I appreciated its chilli-neutralising effect anyway.
There’s also Japchae ($16) – glass noodles with vegetables and thin slices of bulgogi beef – if you’re starving for carbohydrates. Though with the Jang Ta Bal team proactively offering to replenish banchan (side dishes) quite regularly, I don’t reckon you need them.
The best Korean barbeque experience always starts with glowing hot coals – while there are other cooking technologies, nothing beats the taste of meat cooked over charcoal.
Throw items like the Fresh Wagyu Sirloin ($28) – a slightly less fat-marbled slab of beef – on whole, then use the scissors to cut them up when they’re cooked.
Coat liberally with ssamjang (fermented soybean and chilli paste) wrap in lettuce with raw garlic, pickled daikon, kimchi and fresh chilli slices, eat and repeat.
Over the course of two visits I mow my way through a variety of cuts and two kinds of meat.
Premium Wagyu Short Rib Meat ($35) is – after the scotch fillet – the standout on flavour.
Marinated Wagyu Bulgogi ($24) is thinner, tender and enjoyable, particularly if you like less chewy bite to your meat.
Pork is cooked separately on a less see-through barbeque plate, so do signal for the waiter to change it when you’re ready to switch meats. As a basic rule of thumb, cook your plain, high quality meats, like Fresh Pork Belly ($20) before any marinated ones like Spicy Pork Belly ($22).
The latter has a lovely kick and can be wrapped up as is with daikon and lettuce leaves.
The plain pieces of pork belly beg for a simpler dipping sauce than the ssamjang.
Our waiter shows us how to make one at the table from sesame oil and seasoned salt – the trick is getting the balance right. The finely shredded spicy spring onion salad (pajeori) will balance your wrap if you accidentally make a salt bath.
Pretty much the only thing I’d change about Jang Ta Bal are the light levels. While I understand it’s safety first – they want you to see what you’re eating and know when it’s cooked - I reckon we could amp down from the 7-11 aesthetic to a less intense middle ground. Mind you, this didn’t stop me from returning one week after my initial meal.
Jang Ta Bal
Level 1, 73-75 Liverpool Street, Sydney
Ph: (0424) 547 375
Thanks to Spooning for arranging this visit.