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Surprise find

Darae Korean-Japanese Restaurant is an unexpectedly pleasant gem in Duluth

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You may recall the recent short-lived sushi train craze. If you don't, you are the lucky ones. I can't forget it.

I did love the train part, since it reminded me of Christmas with my cousins at our grandparents' house. Except that our train was filled with popcorn balls. And it isn't as though I could not see the advantage of being able to reach out when the mood struck and lifting a Fiesta ware saucer of sushi off the chugging vehicle. The thing that got to me was pondering how long some of that raw fish had been circling the room, unrefrigerated.

I must not have been the only one; the train restaurant on Satellite Boulevard just south of Pleasant Hill Road is gone. In its place is Darae Korean-Japanese Restaurant.

This, we discovered one recent afternoon as we were stuck in the impossible traffic in that area. We were beginning to stew when our glazed eyes focused on the sign we thought we knew. A Korean restaurant in this part of the county? That Korean cuisine was branching out beyond Buford Highway was good news. If the food were any good, it would be great news. We made a quick left turn into the parking lot.

The first thing we encountered was the owner stringing Christmas lights in the vestibule. For the moment, the potted plants were holding the stray strings. Handel's Messiah wafted through the air as we perused a menu that includes, among other things, a stew of "blow fish, vegetable & noodle in special broth with spicy sauce," for $29.95.

Darae is a sort of stew in other ways. The oval central structure that once was the train track is now a normal, non-motorized sushi bar -- at least the front half of it is. The back side has been finished off with shelves, and partially hides the main kitchen. Around the rest of the room, the blond wood and contemporary styling of the previous restaurant remains. There are a handful of booths in the high-ceilinged main part of the modestly sized restaurant. On either side of this center section is a quiet alcove with several tables.

Darae's menu is a treat itself. There is a separate lunch menu, but it is not the slightest bit perfunctory. Lunch is where the Japanese side of Darae comes through, with its artfully filled lacquered boxes. The Korean side contributes spicy (hot! hot! hot!) soups composed of such disparate ingredients as shrimp, silky tofu and rib marrow. All are delicious, particularly the marrow soups with their rich broth and surprisingly large, surprisingly tasty load of beef strips. And, of course, the handfuls of vermicelli are divine.

Darae is particularly expert with tofu. A ridiculously inexpensive ($7.95) stew of tofu and seafood bubbles in its pot, enriched, as is customary, with egg. Obviously, given the quantity and variety of shellfish in the pot, the tofu is no vegetarian substitute. Instead, the satiny, melt-in-your-mouth cubes serve as counterpoints to the savory seafood. And this is but one of 24 stews, not including the spicy stews.

You know the barbecue that is standard fare in Korean restaurants? Darae offers eight kinds, including marinated beef tripe and marinated squid.

All this plus hot sake and green tea ice cream, too.

Darae, then, is a good place to introduce yourselves to Korean food if you haven't tried it before. If you have, though, it is an even better place to explore it further.

Darae Korean-Japanese Restaurant, 3645 Satellite Blvd., Duluth, (between Steve Reynolds Boulevard and Pleasant Hill Road), 678-475-9170. Open daily from 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Dinner menu served beginning at 2:30 p.m. There is something available in every price range, from $7.95 to $29.95. Credit cards. Dress: casual. Ambiance: contemporary. Smoke-free environment. Wheelchair accessible.

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