Review: Woky Ko Kauto
by Jess Carter
06 July 2018
Serving Asian food with a distinct whiff of Bristolian character, this new restaurant is modern, fun, and serves up some serious umami bombs...
I say Chinese food, you (probs) say takeaway. Tubs of chow mein, bubbly prawn crackers in translucent white plastic, and polystyrene pots of sweet and sour sauce are the comforting stuff of rainy Friday nights in. But that’s a world away from what Larkin Cen is doing in his Bristol restaurants, which now total two after the opening of this Queens Road site in May.
Originally from Cardiff, Larkin moved to Bristol in 2010, and dropped the mic on his career as a solicitor to cook professionally after making it to the finals of MasterChef 2013. Almost two years ago, he opened his first Bristol restaurant, Woky Ko: Cargo, which is housed in a shipping container and focuses on Asian street food.
Woky Ko: Kauto is a much larger, two-floor restaurant in Clifton. Its bigger kitchen means that Larkin has been able to flex his culinary muscles and build on the offering of the Cargo sibling. So, while you’ll see some familiar dishes – think edamame spring rolls, crispy duck rice noodles and those baos – there’s heaps of new stuff too, including bowls of umami-laced broths, unfamiliar small plates and different sharing boards.
It might be sleek and modern, but the carefully thought out décor has a soft, understated edge, with touches of light wood and soft greys. There’s seating at the kitchen, on bar-height chairs, so punters can watch their food prepped by the cool, calm team, as they get going with a glass of sake. Well, that’s what we did when we went to check out the new digs, anyway.
The salt and pepper squid (£6.45) was one of the best versions I’ve had: the dry, crisp batter punchy with seasoning, and the fresh- tasting meat inside cooked just so. The crispy duck bao (£3.95) saw tender slices of meat cosy up with cucumber and Peking sauce inside a soft, pump steamed bun, and, to conclude our first course (yes, this was all just the first course – don’t look at me like that), was the onglet steak (£8.95) that I’d been tipped off about that day. Served confidently rare, the deep red cut – known for its strong beefy flavour – sat in slices in a slightly fiery black bean jus that was balanced with dollops of soft, creamy cauli purée. The steak had been marinated in apple juice, soy, mirin and sake, and had a lovely fine crust with subtle char. I may have not looked great eating it – the slices were thick and had to go into my gob whole (’cause chopsticks), and although nicely textured required a long, conversation-halting chew – but I didn’t much care.
Next we slurped on a steaming bowl of tom yum soup (£13.95). The orange broth, containing fat prawns and delicate clams, was fiery and aromatic with chilli and lemongrass. It’ll be my feed of choice next time I feel a cold coming on.
Cheung fun (£10.95) is one of three vegan options on the menu. Plump rolls of rice noodle were gently toasted and covered in a wonderfully savoury and silky Sichuan sauce, along with slices of chestnut mushroom, asparagus and mature, mellow spring onion. A kind of Chinese version of gnocchi, as the chef described it.
Talking to us as we ate and he worked, Larkin made his feelings clear about the half Korean-fried chicken sharing plate (£18.95), so we thought we’d best give it a whirl (didn’t need much convincing, to be fair). Half a chicken went into the fryer with a seasoned cornstarch coating, meaning it emerged with moreishy crisp, well- flavoured skin, and was chopped into manageable parts to show off the white flesh that glistened with juiciness. The meat was as tender as that picture paints it to be, and was served with thin, floury pancakes, nicely spiced Gochujang and pokey kimchi, finely chopped for wrapping up in those pancakes.
As far as I’m concerned, the ice cream bao dessert (£4.25) is non-negotiable on every visit to Woky Ko. We’re talking coconut ice cream, topped with a light and sticky salted caramel sauce and sandwiched in a still-warm, deep-fried bun. I’ll just leave that here for you...
Kauto is a cool, relaxed and very welcome new kid on the Bristol block, doing Asian food with fun, contemporary character. Go with mates to make the most of the cocktails (designed by Little Victories), and of the varied food. Sharing is caring here, team.
Woky Ko: Kauto, 7-9 Queens Road, Bristol BS8 1QE; photography by Kirstie Young