My friend and I lean our heads over a bowl of soup crowded with homemade noodles and seafood in a lobster-red broth. Among the jumble float small, gray, podlike nubs. My friend is quite familiar with Korean cuisine, but he's never seen them before. He holds up one pod creature in a spoon while our server tries her best to explain what they are.
"Fish bomb," she repeats in friendly but broken English. "Don't swallow. Chew. Be careful. Juicy." She smiles apologetically.
Right. No problem. We're both adventurous eaters. We each put one in our mouth. They feel leathery, unchewable. I bite down regardless and sense a pop against something bony. A gush of overpowering, fishy liquid rushes into my mouth. I look across the table. My friend's face is also scrunched up. We politely spit the fish bombs into our napkins and take a sip of water. We still don't know what they are, but we push the rest of them to the side of the bowl and dig out plump shrimp and pieces of fish from the soup.
Perhaps starting with that anecdote isn't the best means by which to entice you to Dongbaek Garden. But there are also plenty of accessible, identifiable delights to be had here. Promise.
Korean cuisine is one of the last Asian horizons to be explored by Western palates. We love Chinese, Thai, Japanese ... even the foods of Vietnam have been embraced lately. But not yet Korean. I suspect it has something to do with its predilection toward sour flavors, the taste Westerners are least drawn to.
Housed next to a Longhorn Steakhouse in one of the winding strip malls that orbit Gwinnett Place, Dongbaek Garden certainly looks approachable. Its foyer doors are propped open in a perpetual gesture of welcome, and light woods give the dining room an aura of both warmth and amiable order.
The covered holes in the center of each table let you know the restaurant specializes in the least intimidating facet of Korean cuisine: barbecue. Unless you're a large party, however, the barbecue is cooked in the kitchen. The embedded burners are gas-fueled, anyway, so you miss out on the drama of the bucket of live coals delivered to your table in places like Hae Woon Dae on Buford Highway.
But that doesn't mean the barbecue isn't worth trying. The meats are cut thin, marinated and cooked rapidly behind the counter. You can even see the owner's daughter, dressed to hostess in white, working the grill, calling out orders in a calm, lyrical voice.
All the while, accompaniments for the barbecue and small bowls of salads and pickled vegetables (known as pan chan) are spread before you. The selection rotates, but you might get creamy potato salad, mushrooms with small slices of beef, a tangle of glass noodles, seaweed with cucumber -- and always, of course, kim chi.
When your barbecue arrives at last, prepare to do a little of your own work. You can, obviously, eat the pieces of spicy pork or beef as is, but your server will kindly show you the Korean ritual if you're interested: Start with a piece of lettuce. Spread a bit of miso-based sauce on it. Add a few slivers of green onion. Next, spoon on a modest pile of rice. Then, finally, two or three slices of meat. Roll it up and dig in. The contrasts of textures, temperatures, spicy vs. mild, sweet and yet savory -- every mouthful is fresh and satisfying.
The tabletop burners are also used to cook hot pot meals, and these folks are not kidding when they warn you it's a lot of food. We ask for the spicy seafood variation. It starts out looking like a pile of disjointed, raw or partially cooked ingredients. How long will it take until we can eat it?
"Ten minutes," says our server with confidence.
While we graze on pan chan, she tends to our hot pot, using kitchen sheers to snip squid into manageable bites, stirring the melding greens and enoki mushrooms into the suddenly fragrant broth filled with shrimp and crab and ...
Fish bombs. I ask for the owner's daughter.
"Do you know the English word for these critters?" I inquire.
She and the server consult in Korean. They shake their heads.
"What's the Korean word, then?"
They look at each other. "Mideodok," they reply. "Very healthy for you."
"Mideodok," I repeat. I resolve to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Beyond the hot pots and the barbecue, the rest of the menu is devoted to items designated "lunch and light dishes." This is where things can get chancy. You might select "grilled sole" and end up with a plate of strong, perilously bony fish. Sliced pork in miso sauce may sound safe, but it's pork that's been cut so that it's heavily striated with fat. Hey, I live by the fat-equals-flavor rule, but this pork is a bit blubbery even for me.
Or you might stumble onto the house special buckwheat noodles, otherwise known as "water noodles." Thin noodles, one degree heartier than angle hair, are submerged in a cool pottage made with kiwi, pineapple, pear and lemon. It's a mite sour on first sip, but you quickly acclimate. Lithe slices of Asian pear emerge from under the noodles. A few pine nuts, their flavor toasty and clear, bob on the surface. It's the most refreshing thing I've eaten all summer.
And that's the reward for taking gambles in restaurants like Dongbaek Garden. For every five things you try that don't suit you, there's one -- like a song you instantly love -- that hits your senses with easy, revelatory joy.
Oh ... and about our fishy friends? It took a conversation with a friend's boss' Korean nanny, Sarah, to help me uncover their identity. She knew the word "mideodok" but had to do a little research on the Internet to find a translation.
"Warty sea squirt," she announced triumphantly. A marine invertebrate that flourishes in the warm Korean waters, they've grown in popularity during the last decade because of their purported high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Mystery solved. Sea squirt, huh? Well, the name sure does fit.
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