A Korean barbecue place with a difference

Breakers Korean BBQ

3505 Gwinnett Place Drive, Duluth

2 of 4 stars (very good)

As we stepped inside Breakers Korean BBQ, I could tell that something was different here, only I wasn’t sure what.

The room was tall, wide and full of clean white lines. A man in a neatly fitted charcoal gray suit jacket moved around the room, pausing here and there to linger at a table or survey the room. He was wearing sunglasses, even though it was 9 o’clock and we were inside. The hostesses were gracious, our server prompt. There were giant pictures of dancers on the walls.

I couldn’t put my finger on what was different, and then I realized it. I couldn’t smell a thing.

In fact, Breakers may have the least smell of any restaurant you’ve ever been in, despite the fact that the food is cooked at your table. The propane-fired, cast-iron cooker that occupies the center of every table is fitted with a ventilation system that sucks the aroma of food away before it ever reaches your nose. And, if you look above your head, an impressive number of vents line the ceiling, capturing any other stray bit of smoke or pumping out cold air, I suppose.

Our loquacious server explained: “What are most people’s complaints about Korean barbecue? That the room is smoky and hot and they leave with their clothes smelling like the food.”

I suppose I’m in the minority, because nothing pleases me more than being bathed in clouds of meat wind. That said, I’ll concede the point. Most people don’t like smelling like what they ate for dinner.

Korean barbecue, of course, has little to with the hour and hours of slow and low hardwood smoking that we know as Southern barbecue. At Breakers, the meats are started over charcoal in the kitchen and then finished on the cast-iron propane cooker by your server, who will answer any question you have and likely three or four that you don’t.

I was somewhat surprised when our server asked, “Are you familiar with kimchee?” Of all Korean foods, isn’t spicy fermented cabbage the one household name by now? His point, though, was clear. If you haven’t the faintest clue about Korean food, the servers at Breakers are ready to help you out.

Which is not to say that you should take all of their suggestions. My first night at Breakers, I let myself be talked into a meal of short rib, prawns and scallops. Our server went on and on about it and I acquiesced.

It was fine. The short rib was very tender and the shrimp and scallops were light and simple, but the whole meal was the kind of subtle and tender that verged on bland and boring.

What you really want is the all-you-can-eat meal.

This will prompt a long succession of plates. First comes the obligatory and forgettable fruit-laden salad and small bowl of miso soup that accompanies all dishes here. Then the many side plates of bean sprouts, dipping sauces, sweet radish, rice wrappers and, of course, kimchee.

Finally, you will receive a parade of meat that never seems to end. A bowl of brisket shaved as thin as paper. Lightly smoked pork belly that crisps up to a crunch on the cooker. A shredded pile of bulgogi and big hunks of pork rib meat. Deboned chicken thighs that have been marinated in a lovely sweet red pepper sauce that our server cited as “secret.” A pile of funky squid.

The flavors built from clean and salty up to rich, sweet marinades, and each course cooked to a tender crisp. Our servers always managed to be back at the table at the right time, never leaving meats to burn or overcook.

All of which leaves you free to think about ordering another whiskey soda highball or bottle of Korean Hite beer. Just don’t expect too much prowess in the cocktail department.

I did have a question for our server about the cool-looking guy in the gray suit jacket, the one who wears his sunglasses at night. Who is he? One server told me that he’d owned 140 martial arts studios along the mid-Atlantic coast. Another told me that he’d cashed out of a wildly successful tutoring center chain before opening the restaurant.

I was a bit incredulous, but I made some calls, and the story checks out. His name is Bobby Kim and Breakers Korean BBQ is his first restaurant. I highly doubt it will be his last.

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