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