Sometimes when I go out to eat, I want to feel like I’m out: I want the fancy room and the full service. Other times, I want the comfort of home without the trouble, the big bowl of something satisfying plopped in front of me without much show.
In general, restaurants make it easy to know which way you’re going. You see a maitre d’ in a suit or a white tablecloth on the table and you know where you are. At the new Dish Korean Cuisine on Buford Highway, though, I’ve found pleasure eating at a place that looks fancy but acts folksy.
Let me set the scene for you: Dish is in a shopping center. To its left is the hit Malaysian restaurant Food Terminal. To the right is a massive grocery store with signs in English and Vietnamese. The building is slapped with several textures of materials, and a stylized awning hangs over the front door. Inside reveals a brightly lit but modern-cool room, full of clean white paint, blond wood, and multiple private dining rooms hidden by large sliding doors. The ceiling of the main dining room is arched with exposed rough wood beams and a set of recessed light fixtures that resemble imitation skylights. This is a room that, in its utter difference from my own home, gives me the real pleasure of being out. If they’d turn down the lights a notch, it might give me even more.
Yet from the first moment at the host stand to the last, spicy, fermented bite from whichever bowl I happen to be ordering from, Dish is a place that gives me the pleasure of eating at home. I suppose I feel a little funny saying that. I’ve never been to Korea, much less called it home. I have no Korean relatives that I know of. Up until my early 20s, I probably couldn’t have told you the difference between bibimbap and bulgogi. That’s also my point. Dish serves a cuisine of rich, satisfying stews and filling piles of rice or noodles and plates of pickled and fried things that will taste like home whether the South means Seoul or Atlanta to you.
Each meal begins with a handful of banchan (small plates) that contain some surprises and pleasures. There are tangy, soy-spiked pickled radishes and jalapenos along with spicy cabbage kimchi. I’ve been most surprised and pleased, though, by funky slivered tofu skin marinated in what tastes like the pungent kick of fish sauce and the smooth richness of sesame oil. There is also a sweetened mashed potato salad, which is as creamy and satisfying as people in Georgia expect from potato salad, and as sweet and fruity as one might expect it to be in Seoul.
Those bowls are plopped unceremoniously on your table after you order, unmentioned on the menu and nearly unacknowledged when they arrive. The feeling of home is also in this sort of service, which is informal and friendly. A woman who might be a little younger than my mother has waited on me most meals. She never makes much of a fuss, and yet always finds a way to make me feel welcome. On my most recent visit, she checked our table’s IDs when we ordered drinks, eventually looking at me and saying, “Noooo, I remember you,” with genuine warmness.
The best way to follow the arrival of that banchan is with one of the fried pancakes. There are two on the menu, and both come in portions large enough to easily satisfy four people. I’ve never finished one, but always enjoy trying. The seafood version arrives as golden brown and crunchy as a funnel cake, laced with long green strips of scallion, tiny juicy shrimp and chewy cuts of squid. The kimchi pancake comes to the table orange-red and a little less crisp than the seafood option, but loaded with a savory, addictive, slow-burning heat.
There’s some fun and pleasure in the oh jeoul pan, a spread of thin-cut, colorful veggies to be mixed and matched with tender wheat pancakes. In particular, the lightly cooked mushrooms and sliced cucumbers make for a savory, crunchy bite. This is a simplified version of gujeolpan, a centuries-old dish in Korea with such a storied tradition that a wooden, sectional platter was invented for serving it.
Whatever you order first, you must save room for the entrees. Dish has a way of loading up large bowls with portions so filling that even an order of vegetarian bibimbap, rice topped with merely a selection of raw and sauteed veggies and a fried egg, can make for a coma-inducing meal.
I’m drawn to the sutbul bulgogi jaengban guksu, a long name for a very large dish of cool, chewy noodles, big dollops of spicy gochujang, broiled bulgogi beef and a full color spectrum of mandoline-thin veggies: cabbage, carrots, peppers, cucumbers and a tangle of bean sprouts. It arrives at the table looking like a painter’s palette, each colorful vegetable mounded in distinct piles, but the thing to do is take your chopsticks and stir the whole thing into a messy pile so that each bite has the crunch of a vegetable, the chew of a noodle, a meaty nugget of beef and the rich spiciness of sauce tying the whole thing together.
The menu includes a long spread of more meat-focused entrees. The spicy, saucy boneless short ribs are a reliable standard, as good as they should be. On the other hand, I was unable to really enjoy the cheese deung galbi gui, which is a sizzling platter of sticky, spicy-sweet pork ribs to be dipped in a fondue-like pool of melted mozzarella cheese. I’d mustered up some enthusiasm for this experience before the dish arrived, but only a few saucy, cheesy, sweet, spicy bites in, I felt a wave of regret for putting this much cheese and meat in front of myself. You may want to second-guess yourself before making the same decision.
What I really long for at Dish, though, are the bowls of jjigae stew that arrive molten-red and burbling at the edges. You can choose from different ingredients — kimchi and pork, Spam and rice cakes, beef and silky tofu — but I’ve found each to be uniformly rich, layered with texture upon texture, pepper upon pepper. I look forward to this when the weather turns and the air in the parking lot is blowing cold. I’ll step inside and sit down to one of those warm bowls and, somehow, it’ll taste a little like home.