Barbecue aficionados love nothing more than to argue about barbecue.
Case in point: the buddy of mine I invited to Char Korean Bar and Grill for a meal of Korean barbecue.
He’s a barbecue guy, steeped in the Southern tradition of smoking large cuts of meat for hours and hours. I’d neglected to mention that the culinary tradition known in English as Korean barbecue is opposite in almost every way: very small pieces of meat cooked directly over flame for short periods of time.
I could see the argument beginning to build inside him as he held a tiny coin of beef tenderloin in his chopsticks. The meat had only spent a minute on our table’s gas grill. His eyes held that age-old skepticism — “This is not barbecue” — until he had a bite, the meat rich with soy sauce and sesame oil, meltingly tender from a month of aging, sliced precisely against the grain.
Maybe he wouldn’t call it barbecue, but he wasn’t going to argue with it.
In Korean, this kind of cooking is known as gogigui, which translates literally to something like “meat roast” or “meat grill.” So, call it gogigui or meat roast or Korean barbecue or KBBQ or whatever suits your fancy. The good news is that Char does it very well.
Char is the latest restaurant to open in Inman Quarter, the new upscale development along North Highland Avenue. It is a decidedly cool space, with a vivid mural by local artist Brandon Sadler, a glimmering row of exhaust fans hanging from the ceiling, and a rectangular bar shared with a patio that gives the modest-sized room a much larger, open-air feeling.
It is no wonder that such a space has attracted something of an upscale late-night drinking crowd, much like their neighbors Beetlecat and BarTaco. It is a fun place, unafraid of pumping up the pop music and slinging drinks with the energy of a club.
Even on a busy night, I’ve found the staff here really knows the pleasures of their menu. One bartender was posed the vague question, “Say, what’s this second ingredient in the Dynamic Duo?” Without missing a beat, he responded that I must be asking about Myungjak Bokbunja, a traditional raspberry wine produced in Korea that, when mixed with Bulleit bourbon for that cocktail, makes something like a sweet Manhattan with a raspberry hint.
When he placed the cocktail coupe in front of me, the drink was garnished with a perfect disc of dehydrated lemon. Not bad.
This is not to say the crowd here is necessarily looking for such a refined cocktail experience. On a recent weekend night, I eavesdropped as a server described Char’s whiskey selection to a nearby table, including rare, pricey options from Yamazaki and Pappy Van Winkle. The table opted for shots of Fireball instead.
Whether you’re drinking Pappy or Fireball, any meal at Char should begin with a couple of small plates: maybe a stack of crunchy-chewy rice cakes swimming in gochujang sauce or a bowl of spicy sweet potato noodles piled with scallions. A dish of potted veal brains has a touch of spice and smoke that lends a pleasant kick when spread on a crispy scallion pancake. A plate of bossam, which includes a pile of lettuce, tender slices of pork belly and pickled garnishes to be wrapped together, might even be enough to hit the spot.
These smaller dishes tend to be pretty good, but you cannot leave Char without the main event.
The best way to do this is to indulge in a combo. The smallest of these, which runs $80, includes thin medallions of bulgogi (marinated beef tenderloin), strips of kalbi (marinated beef short rib), shaved ribbons of brisket and beef tongue, hunks of dweji bulgogi (marinated pork shoulder), domino-shaped slabs of pork belly, and an unlimited supply of banchan, a selection of addictively snackable kimchi made in-house.
When this feast is delivered, the grill at the center of your table will be lit and you’ll be given a pair of tongs to turn and cook the meats at your leisure.
There’s no wrong way to do this. You may prefer the slabs of pork belly cooked to a charred crisp or the beef tenderloin barely touched by the flame. Part of the pleasure is taking your time and enjoying your company. Korean barbecue is excellent conversation food. Bring friends — you’ll need them. That smallest combo was more than enough for two large appetites and could easily feed three. The larger combos (which run as high as $160) should feed a crowd.
The best meat here is the dry-aged beef, which is uncommonly tender and usually hand-cut with excellent care. This matters less for the brisket and tongue, which are shaved in the average style. A solo diner might make a fine meal from a single order of bulgogi and a scallion pancake.
There are ways to go wrong here. If you’re seated on the patio, you’ll be given a portable tabletop grill for your meats that simply doesn’t work as well as the grills inside the restaurant. I learned this when I ordered the short rib wagyu, which arrived hastily sliced in uneven shards. Oh, sure, it was buttery and tender, but if you’re going to eat a $25 2-ounce portion of wagyu beef, there are better ways than flipping jagged ribbons of it on a lukewarm tabletop burner. Don’t bother with it.
The other cuts of beef are more than good enough, and you’ll be much happier if you spend that cash on a glass of Pappy Van Winkle.
Char Korean Bar and Grill. 5 p.m.-midnight Mondays-Saturdays, 5-11 p.m. Sundays. 299 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta. 404-525-2427, charatlanta.com.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.