"Boy bands are really big in Korea right now," says our friend who recently returned from Seoul. He points to the massive screen playing Korean music videos in the center of Iron Age (2131 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth, 678-334-5242). An endless stream of R&B singers, rappers, boy bands and girl bands glam it up on the big screen. Many of the customers huddled around the barbecue tables are as young as the performers. Judging by their haircuts and styling, they're gleaning some of their swagger from the stars belting out the melodies that set the energetic – and addictive – vibe at this new Korean restaurant.
The design takes many cues from the military. A large abstract propeller sculpture hangs over the dining room and the servers wear chic button-up shirts with Korean flag patches. Beverages – such as the chilled green plastic bottles of Draft Makkoli (a slightly fizzy and citrusy rice beer) – are served in large steel cups that look as if they were plucked straight from a soldier's pack. The name and metallic theme comes from the restaurant owner's own tour of duty in the culinary world. His other restaurant, Kimchi House, taught him a costly lesson in kitchenware. Breakables break ... a lot. As a solution, his new restaurant uses metals – like iron – to save money. Iron also serves as the centerpiece of the dining experience, as most of the cooking is done on a grooved and tilted cast iron griddle.
Iron Age's main draw is the all-you-can-eat barbecue – $14.99 buys you an unlimited supply of pork belly, sliced brisket and bibimbap. You receive a family-size bowl of vegetable and bean soup, which one diner dubbed "Korean minestrone." Rice cake wrappers and slices of daikon are served along with lightly dressed lettuce, some assorted banchan – a super pungent kimchee cabbage included – and an array of dipping sauces for your meats. The pork belly is cut into long slices and served plain or marinated in an assortment of flavors. Any marinade is a good choice since this particular pork belly tends to toughen up rather quickly. Rolls of thinly sliced brisket arrive semi-frozen so each piece retains its perfect shape. Don't let the beef cook all the way through; eat it almost cooked so there's a little bit of every texture and the buttery fat isn't lost.
The bibimbap is the final scene, but you have to ask for it. The server, who does most of the cooking and cutting for you, leaves a mound of rice loaded with spicy paste, vegetables, and seaweed flakes to cook on the stove until it is custardy on the top and crusty on the bottom. Tiny spoonfuls eaten between sips of beer end the meal on a sweeter note than the free frozen yogurt at the door could ever provide.
The comparison to Honey Pig is inevitable. The meat is better at Honey Pig, but Iron Age is less expensive and more fun. The restaurant has broken away from the structured templates other spots abide by and feels fresher. Dining at Iron Age is an exercise in good food, drink, and a little piece of the new – and real – Korea.
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