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Woo Nam Jeong Stone Bowl House dining review, Doraville

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“Do you know what these are?” the waitress asks me, pointing to one of the several

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

side dishes — banchan in Korean — that she has just brought to the table. It holds brownish lumps, each with a grainy texture and a thin, netted skin covering the surface.

“Potatoes… ?” I venture.

“Very good,” she says with a laugh. “They are potatoes.”

I very much like the sweet-salty braised potatoes, but not as much as I like this waitress, who clearly relishes her role as an ambassador to Korean cuisine. She explains and describes, mixes and tosses, circles back with more of this and tastes of that.

As for this restaurant — Woo Nam Jeong Stone Bowl House — I don’t simply like it. I think I’m developing a bit of a crush on it.

Other Korean restaurants along Buford Highway offer fine specialties, be they barbecue, noodles or tofu soup. Woo Nam Jeong has a signature dish on its broad menu — rice with toppings cooked in the superheated stone bowl called a dolsot. But it also has much more: a warm personality, a charismatic owner and a welcome spirit of outreach. If you don’t know much about Korean food — or, like some, find it a bit scary — this restaurant should be tops on your list.

If I can make a pointed suggestion for newcomers and Korean food fans alike, you might turn your attention to the one page of the lengthy menu that is unlike any other in town. That would be the 12-course menu. The cost — $69.95 — could give you pause, but then you realize that buys you a feast for two people (the price is prorated for larger parties) and is no more than you’d spend on a meal in a nice bistro. Plus, you get a virtual tour of the modern Korean kitchen.

Beef short rib stew is one of the dishes on the 12-course menu at Woo Nam Jeong. It costs $69.95 for two people.   Photos by Becky Stein / Special

Beef short rib stew is one of the dishes on the 12-course menu. It costs $69.95 for two people. Photos by Becky Stein / Special

Owner Young Hui Han, whom patrons refer to as “Grandma” in Korean and English, cooks with real heart, whether she’s preparing the classics of the Korean repertoire or more Western-style fusion dishes — the kind of recipe someone might snip from a cooking magazine.

Gene Lee — my Korean-American colleague on the AJC’s dining team — and I settle into one of Woo Nam Jeong’s semi-private booths with a 500-milliliter bottle of soju, the clear and mild distillate liquor with an alcohol level north of wine but south of vodka. We sip it from shot glasses, and it tickles rather than burns on the way down.

“Are you ready to start?” asks our waitress, who names and describes each dish that comes to our increasingly crowded table. This meal is a lesson.

We begin with two small bowls. One holds a warm, white, blandly comforting porridge of rice and pine nuts. The other is a “water kimchi” with decorously carved pear, cucumber and carrot in a watery, ice-cold, sweet-sour pickle juice. Hello yin, hello yang.

Unlike Westerners who like the end results of fermentation in, say, dry salami and dill pickles, Koreans like the flavor of the process — that taste of sugars turning into alcohol and fizzy carbon dioxide. Your palate may associate this flavor with spoilage, but you can learn to appreciate it. This water kimchi is the best introduction to this flavor you can imagine.

Next come wonderful hot bites. There’s a pan-fried tile of green squash, steamy and slippery, with a pungent soy dip, and then a shrimp tempura that makes your head ring when you bite in.

The next course seems like something my own Grandma would have made: seafood and peppers grilled on a skewer, glazed in a sweet sauce and served over, yes, a slice of canned pineapple. It’s the flavor of the 1950s.

“A lot of Koreans love these,” Gene said, picking up his yellow ring with chopsticks. “I think it’s because American GIs used to hand out cans of pineapple, and it was the first time anyone had tasted it.”

And then something my Grandma wouldn’t have know what to make of: a clamshell covered in a flurry of chopped egg — the white on one side, the yellow on the other — covering a soft, warm, spongy mass of chopped seafood and beef. It is the baked clam I never knew existed.

Owner-chef Young Hui Han, known to patrons as Grandma, makes kimchi and pork bulgogi.

Owner Young Hui Han -- Grandma -- makes kimchi and pork bulgogi.

“Are you ready for your side dishes?” a waiter asks, indicating that the banchan would arrive, and we were heading from appetizers to main courses.

I’ve never seen banchan like this: a dozen gleaming porcelain tetrahedron vessels with the most exquisite nibbles. Strips of marinated kelp, sesame-oil slicked fish cake, emerald-hued sautéed watercress, sweet ribs of cabbage with a hint of that fizzy fermentation. And those tiny-tiny fish amassed in sticky caramel! It’s fish candy! So salty, so sweet. So wrong, so right.

Our first entree is a slab of pollack fried to stunning crunch, then painted with a chile-red sauce, as sweet as it is spicy, as salty as it is vinegary. Kee-runch! Fried fish zapped with pure flavor.

Next comes an enormous chicken wing with its meat pushed into a knob at the base of the bone and rolled in toasted sesame seeds, followed by a fat pillow of braised beef short rib, sweet braised meat as tender and fatless as you could hope for. The waitress shows each of us our own enormous chunk of beef before snipping them into bite-size pieces with a scissors.

A salad of julienned jellyfish in a super-sweet, super-tart, super-nostril-clearing mustard sauce, I’m going to admit, is not my favorite. Bouncy, saline, stinging.

We wind down a nifty package of julienned vegetables in a soft wrapper called gujeolpan. Koreans know thisas a dish associated with royal cuisine. It always contains nine ingredients and comes in an octagonal dish with the eight piles of strips around the periphery and the round wraps in the center. I see it here, now, as a perfect cognate of the French salad course — a bright refresher that steers your palate toward dessert.

It’s also a time to reflect on a meal that had plenty of the big flavors I associate with Korean food, but also that homeyness, softness and palpable love I sometimes taste in Southern food. And those textures! Was there a single food texture that went without representation during this meal?

Maybe this one. Young Hui Han, Grandma herself, comes out to personally deliver the dessert. It is glutinous rice cake that’s warm in the center, crisp on the surface and sticky with syrup. On the side is a bowl of icy-sweet cinnamon soup that is the essence of the beloved spice.

But Han pulls our attention to the rice cake that she has decorated with strips of jujube date and parsley leaf.

“It’s a flower,” she says, beaming and pointing out the design.

So are you, Grandma.

WOO NAM JEONG STONE BOWL HOUSE
5953 Buford Highway, Doraville, 678-530-0844
3stars5Food: Korean home cooking
Service: Friendly, welcoming, eager to help newcomers with Korean food traditions
Best dishes: Stone bowl with spicy pork, beef short rib, fried pollock, gujeolpan vegetable wraps
Vegetarian selections: Quite a few
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays-Tuesdays (closed Wednesdays)
Children: Fine for kids, and you might be surprised by how much they like the food.
Parking: In lot
Reservations: Not necessary, but you should call ahead and alert them if you’re interested in the 12-course menu.
Wheelchair access: yes
Smoking: No
Noise level: Moderate
Patio: No
Takeout: Yes
Website: None
RatingsKey_3

25 comments Add your comment

Josh H

November 19th, 2010
9:47 am

I love Woo Nam Jeong and have been enjoying for the past 1.5 years, but this new rating system has no rhyme or reason. I think Kessler is too whimsical to be a chief critic for a large-market paper.

M.Johnson

November 19th, 2010
10:03 am

Beautiful review! Thanks, John!

StephieZ

November 19th, 2010
10:07 am

Josh, you are out of your mind. 3 stars = merits a drive for this kind of cooking. I have been to Woo Nam Jeong multiple times as well and think that if you are looking to find great bibimbap as well as an interesting Korean prix fixe this is the perfect place to try it out. There are a lot of Atlantans, especially AJC newspaper readers, who have never tried any kind of Korean food and W.N.J. Stone Bowl house would be a great place for them to start.

Sean M

November 19th, 2010
10:23 am

I bet we see a lot of places on Buford with 3’s because… well…. in many cases… where else can you get those types of eats in Atlanta? this place ain’t bad, but the rating system is starting to feel weirdish to me…

Confused?

November 19th, 2010
10:32 am

@ Sean and Josh – What is so difficult to understand about the rating system?

I don’t get how so many people are having trouble wrapping their heads around this. This rating system is in line with how true critics rate restaurants everywhere else. This isn’t Yelp. 3 stars is a very good review in every other major city. The old system led to a lot of inflated ratings, with 1 star places getting 3 because it was just “ok”. Food that is just “ok” should NOT get 3 stars.

Just because most of the ethnic food is on Buford highway doesn’t mean that it is automatically worth the drive to eat there. In fact, there are a lot of places in that area that aren’t worth walking from the parking lot to the front door. The fact that there is a high concentration of Korean restaurants on BuHi doesn’t mean that there will be any more 3 star reviews than if they were scattered all over town.

It really isn’t that tough to understand.

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Mike

November 19th, 2010
1:59 pm

Woo Nam Jeong definitely “Defines excellence in local dining”… That would make it 4 Stars!!

Josh H

November 19th, 2010
2:44 pm

A standardized rating system, by definition, is supposed to use the same standards to rate each restaurant, whether it be an ethnic restaurant in Gwinnett, or a Buckhead steakhouse. The review has to consider all aspects of the dining experience, from concept to execution. You cannot give a restaurant three starts just because it’s unique, or you happen to be a fan of a certain type of cuisine. It’ll be interesting to see which established Atlanta culinary institutions Kessler and Co decide to fling two and three stars at in the coming months.

Josh H

November 19th, 2010
2:51 pm

I feel like I need to clarify my statement by saying that I’m not saying Stone Bowl doesn’t deserve three stars. The problem is that by giving that caliber of a restaurant three stars, it’s going to cheapen the coveted four and five stars to the degree that you’ll logically have to give a four star minimum to every fine-dining restaurant in Atlanta that doesn’t have some kind of major flaw.

Frank

November 19th, 2010
3:57 pm

Speaking of unfair ratings. Saskatoon didn’t deserved 1 star, it deserved 0 stars like what CL gave it.

WNJ is good but its more of a 2 star with this new rating system.

Kev

November 19th, 2010
4:13 pm

I love Korean food but I haven’t been here. I definitely need to check it out.

Smirkin

November 19th, 2010
4:39 pm

@Frank – Wasn’t the Saskatoon review back before they changed rating systems?

Addy C

November 19th, 2010
9:37 pm

I remember reading similar rating discussions when Antico was given 3 stars. I love Woo Jeong Stone Bowl and I think it’s one of the best Korean restaurants in Atlanta – certainly the best one that’s closest to the city.

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Gee

November 20th, 2010
12:52 am

I went to Woo Nam Jeong recently and I would only give it 1 star. The seafood pancakes were good but the Korean beef ribs were extremely overpriced at $18>-very little meat on the bones with an unpleasant smoky sweet aftertaste.

Kirk

November 20th, 2010
8:25 am

Where two or more are gathered, someone will always disagree.

KoPP

November 20th, 2010
8:59 am

John, the ‘cinnamon soup’ is probably Su Jeong Gwa, a drink made from cinnamon, persimmons, and ginger. It’s great in the summer as something to sip after lunch. You can find cans of it at Super H, et.al. http://i453.photobucket.com/albums/qq252/plernnn/cinna.jpg

Sean M

November 20th, 2010
10:36 am

@ Confused? my point was that I don’t think this place deserves 3 stars. it’s not really worth the drive. if you’re cruising buh it’s cool, but don’t drive 30 minutes or whatever to get there. guess you were confused.

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John Kessler

November 22nd, 2010
9:43 am

Interesting discussion. Sorry, was away last week and just jumping in now. Sean M., we’ll have to agree to disagree. I find that Woo Nam Jeong is one of the better Korean restaurants in town, and that 12-course menu is definitely worth the drive. I certainly respect differing opinions, but this is the picture of a three-star restaurant in my book.

John Kessler

November 22nd, 2010
9:46 am

KOPP — Thanks for the tip!

Sean

November 22nd, 2010
11:55 am

Good grief…rather than trying to win a discussion on the internet about a rating system – did I mention you’re on the internet??? – just go eat the food.

pika

November 22nd, 2010
3:56 pm

I’m so glad that Woo Nam Jeong is getting the positive attention it deserves. We love this place, and want it to stick around forever. It’s the only Korean place in town that my picky mother will eat without complaining!

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