"Grandma" shuffles up to our table enveloped in a halo of modesty and pride. The apron- and hairnet-clad sliver of a woman acts as the owner and head chef of Woo Nam Jeong (5953 Buford Highway, 678-530-0844), a restaurant that you need to make your top priority the next time you have a hankering for Korean food. Woo Nam Jeong, or Stone Bowl House as many people call it, looks like your typical modern Korean restaurant — floor-to-ceiling blonde wood, private cubbyhole dining areas, and a flurry of scurrying, super-attentive servers. However, Woo Nam Jeong is a little different from most Korean spots. Grandma is an insanely talented chef who makes everything from standard gut-busting Korean comfort fare to a 12-course tasting menu.
The tasting menu — which costs $59.95 for two people — is a great opportunity to jump headfirst into Korean cuisine. Grandma mixes up more obscure dishes and an impeccable assortment of banchan — such as smooth, white pine nut porridge and battered and pan-fried Korean squash — with more novice-friendly dishes, such as puffy fried filets of pollock drizzled with a spicy sauce, and sesame seed-encrusted drumsticks of Korean fried chicken. The meal finishes with a glutinous, flat rice cake and one final taste: a shallow bowl of cinnamon-infused water.
For a more in and out affair, the dolsots (cast iron pot dishes) cannot be missed. I've had a lot of dolsots in my day and Woo Nam Jeong, without question, makes the best in Atlanta. The variety is reason enough to visit as you can order mushroom, eel, squid, or a kimchi and pork version. A black cast iron bowl is situated on a small, rustic wood trivet so you don't burn your precious fingers. A layer of rice coated in a small amount of oil sizzles precariously. Leave it be for a short spell so the rice spends enough time crisping up before you mix it with the accompanying spicy sauce and the basic dolsot ingredients (veggies, tofu and egg). The quality of Woo Nam Jeong's dolsot bibimbap is excellent, but there is one little tweak that makes a huge difference: shredded lettuce, which adds a fresh pop to each bite even after it wilts.
There are plenty of main dishes to choose from if dolsot isn't your thing. There are large bowls of cylindrical rice cakes and dumplings in smooth broth. There is also black pig bossam, a platter of sliced, chilled pork, salted cabbage, and other vegetables. It's a nice meal for a hot day, where you can customize each bite. Basic Korean starters are all made from scratch. Try the exceptionally tender seafood pancake. The crispy mung bean pancakes stuffed with kimchi, pork, bean sprout and green onions bring to mind Indian chaat or street food. The motherly waitress will cut them into smaller pieces so they're more manageable as you dip them in the tangy and spicy sauce littered with chilies. Handmade boiled dumplings filled with finely minced pork have silky smooth skins. They're just what you would expect from a Korean grandma. And now, we're all lucky enough to have a Korean grandma of our very own.