There are fewer than 40 seats inside Sobban, the Korean-Southern diner set under the horseshoe-bowed roof and soaring plate windows of a vintage Arby’s. That hasn’t stopped the crowds that (mostly) wait patiently to try this exciting new restaurant — one whose time most definitely has come.
You could argue that Atlanta has emerged as one of the country’s (if not the world’s) great towns for Korean food, and many of the area’s best chefs find inspiration from the restaurants and markets throughout the Northern suburbs. We’re ripe for a Western-style restaurant like this, which assumes a certain level of familiarity and comfort with Korean flavors on the part of the customer, both in terms of its chile heat and its twangy funk of fermented vegetables.
This restaurant also has some budding star power behind it: Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor of Heirloom Market BBQ. This project seems more like Lee’s baby, and she oversees the menu. It feels one part derived from Korean family recipes and home cooking, one part Southern farm-to-table, and one part rock ’n’ roll new Asian in the manner of Miso Izakaya or Octopus Bar.
I liked some of what we sampled over a big lunch on my first visit, but also left with the feeling that the menu was a long way from settled. The restaurant seemed to be trying to figure its competing urges out.
A lotus root salad featured both dehydrated and pickled lotus slices atop greens and chives. Unfortunately, neither possessed the great calling card of lotus root, which is its distinctive water chestnut-like crunch. The dressing, piled on the side, was apparently yuja cha — a kind of goopy marmalade made from citron rind (often called by its Japanese name, yuzu). A spoonful of this jam is commonly diluted in hot water to make a kind of digestive tea, but it makes for a very sweet salad ingredient.
The bulgogi roll turned out to be a kind of Gangnam-style cheesesteak — a funny pile of marinated beef slivers with onions, pickled mushrooms and a sweet, creamy kimchee rémoulade sauce. It seemed like it would be good drunk food. Ditto the nori corn dog — a smoky sausage impaled on a chopstick and then thickly battered and fried hard. Taylor infuses nori seaweed into both the sausage itself and the batter coating it, but its sea flavor doesn’t really pop.
Then came a bowl of kimchi-miso kale — incredibly delicious, with an umami-rich elixir of a broth that I wanted to drink. This pronouncement may sound like a bad caption to a New Yorker cartoon, but I don’t think I’ve ever had better kale.
I appreciated the flavor of chicken kalguksu — a rich, overnight chicken broth holding hand-cut fresh noodles, threads of egg crèpe, greens and nori seaweed. The noodles seemed a bit soft, but I understand they’re a work in progress.
When I returned for dinner, the many moods of this wholly original restaurant came into better focus. I paid more attention to the esoteric beverage list assembled by manager Daniel Crawford. From a fresh draft makgeolli (a cloudy, white wheat-and-rice brew that will bring to mind nigori sake) to bek se ju (a limpid, golden rice wine with a distinctive ginseng aroma), Crawford thinks far beyond the mass-market Korean lagers. I loved washing down my meal with a can of Westbrook Gose — a German-style sour beer brewed with salt and coriander.
Looking beyond the few, hotly contested tables to the semi-open kitchen, I saw a machine that grinds soybeans to make fresh tofu, an industrial ice shaver for the signature bingsu desserts, and a pasta station where a cook was rolling fresh kalguksu noodles. They were far better that night, chewy and springy, hungry for the flavor of their broth.
I loved the fresh tofu, both as an appetizer served with kimchi and miso mousse, and then again in an unusual version of bi bim bap made with a base of kimchi-reddened rice. Arugula, shiitake mushrooms, melting braised onions, a gorgeously oozy-centered egg and a few slivers of sesame leaf joined the tofu on top of the rice.
If you go, make sure to start with pork belly bossam — you wrap the crisp tiles of heritage-breed pork in lettuce leaves — and then proceed to this bi bim bap to taste this restaurant at its best.
Skipping dessert is not an option. You will have bingsu — a kind of sweet and salty Korean sundae served on a base of that freshly shaved ice. Puffed grains, fried lotus chips, berries, shredded basil and rice-taffy nubbins all figure in. The three varieties of bingsu served here all have more stuff and less ice than you’d get with a more traditional version on Buford Highway. But they’re dynamic. The signature version — with green tea ice cream, sweet azuki beans and Korean pear compote — is everyone’s favorite.
That’s two visits. There will be more. Many more.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog