Until recently the site hosted a branch of Cafe Coco, and the previous establishment's gold paint and faux-marble tables have been left undisturbed; there's a slightly 90s look to the whole place ('it feels like a youth hostel dining room', said the Administrator) although some impressive use of mirrors gives a sense of space. But I don't want to spend this review sniping about the decor: how was the food? Would I come back? The answer, after two visits, is that I'm not quite sure.
My first experience was on a Saturday lunchtime. Bamboo offers an interesting range of 'lunch boxes' (meat with rice, miso soup and sides) but only on weekdays, so my friend and I both had one of Korean cuisine's signature dishes, dol sot bi bim bab: rice, meat, egg and vegetables in a hot stone bowl (£7.50 with meat, £6.50 without). I'd been looking forward to trying this - rice, meat and egg is a combination I find hard not to like - but we were a little underwhelmed. I think that this dish is meant to cook itself at the table, hence the hot bowl, but all the components, including the fried egg sitting on top of the rest, had clearly been prepared in advance and then put together, and they all seemed to lack flavour. Stirring in the accompanying spicy sauce helped, but the beef in particular was grey and had been ground almost into crumbs.
We were cheered, however, by the kimchi vegetable pancake (£6) we ordered on the side (although it arrived, very quickly, with the main courses). It was tasty and very filling, with a good contrast of textures between the crunchy outside and the cabbage inside. Not fancying any of the obviously bought-in ice cream desserts, we ended the meal with some rice punch and su jung gwa, another Korean punch with persimmon, ginger and cinnamon (both £2). Sadly only a few sips of each were drunk, as they were tooth-achingly, insulin-spikingly sweet. I'm assuming that Korean preferences are sweeter than British ones.
So I'm not sure what conclusion to reach about Bamboo. I suspect that some of our quibbles, especially about the punch and the salad, can be attributed to our western tastes, to which the restaurant may not want to pander (especially as on both my visits other diners clearly came from all over the world), but I'm less inclined to forgive a lack of care with preparation and ingredients. The service was also less than exacting. Everyone was friendly, especially one particular waiter who was there on both occasions, but very slow to take orders and, especially, clear plates and wipe down tables that needed it (also, I don't normally mention toilets, but the ones at Bamboo need better cleaning than they're getting at the moment, I'm afraid). I would consider returning and exploring the menu further - but if Bamboo wants to be a destination in its own right rather than simply Oxford's only Korean restaurant, it will have to try a bit harder.
17 Park End Street
Oxford OX1 1HU