Restaurant Review - Grill crazy

Hae Woon Dae serves Korean 'cue

A hungry Southerner's most mouth-watering dream could be a restaurant where your table has its own pit for barbecuing meat. It's not just an idle fancy, though, as several Korean restaurants present a version of that very feature. Their idea of "barbecue" might not fit the Southern ideal, but makes for unusual and interesting eating in its own right.

Perhaps the alpha among Doraville's numerous Korean restaurants is Hae Woon Dae, although nearby Yong Su Sun and Harue Cafe are gaining on it. Hae Woon Dae's surroundings are less than impressive. Set back from Buford Highway in a mustard-yellow strip mall called Treasure Village, which seems geared to pool halls and adult clubs — even innocent shops look like dens of iniquity.

On walking through the restaurant's front door (which features a cartoonish stencil of a gleeful cow), you'll find Hae Woon Dae's interior to be more inviting, if not lavish. The dominant colors are pale blue and gray, but gleam comes from the rows of gold-painted trophies (the restaurant seems to excel at every athletic activity), which separate the dining areas. To the left are some small private dining rooms, to the right an open area with long, low tables for extended families.

I've always eaten at the tables in the middle, each of which have a recessed gap in the middle. Order one of the barbecue meat dishes, like bulgogi (beef, $13.95 at dinner) and see the staff swing into action. First, someone will come toting a cauldron glowing with red-hot coals, and lower it into the center of your table and place a metal grate atop it. Your server will return with plates of raw cuts of meat and place them on the grill. As it cooks, the fragrant smoke is drawn into one of the air vents above each table.

Don't have the same expectation as you would at a Japanese steakhouse like Benihana, where showmanship is part of the preparation. It's fascinating to watch at Hae Woon Dae, but the servers tend to do their job with severe efficiency. The "show" culminates with servers cutting the cooked meat with scissors and placing it away from the direct heat.

Meat dishes come with a basket of lettuce, and the idea is to treat a lettuce leaf like a tortilla: load it up with meat and rice, dip it in one of the sauces and chomp it down. Initially it can be a strange combination, like eating a Philadelphia steak sandwich with no cheese or bun. But the meat itself is juicy and just smoky enough to be flavorful, although the most recent order of bulgogi I tried had a bit too much gristle. More intriguing is the spiced pork ($13.95), which has the subtlest hint of sweetness. I've also tried the squid, which proved tasty but chewy.

Vegetarians should beware of the rice noodle with vegetables dish ($10.95), which contains plenty of bits of beef not on the menu description. It first comes across as an alarming combination of sickly colors — grays, browns, greens and oranges — with the noodles having a gelatinous texture at first bite. But once you get used to the squiggly entree, you'll be satisfied with how well it works with its light, faintly sweetened sauce.

Hae Woon Dae's kimchee selection is the restaurant's highlight. Before the meat arrives, the server brings to your table nearly a dozen small bowls, each with a different item, nearly all of them some variety of pickled vegetable, and most of them delicious. The shredded cabbage is a bit too brackish for my taste, but the green watercress stalks and the yellow bean sprouts retain a pleasing bit of crunch.

Pale cubes of radish in peppery red sauce, which arrives at a cool room temperature, makes a memorable contrast with a spicy-hot liquid. The strips of dried radish prove anemic by comparison. Of the kimchee dishes, the softest and most "neutral" item is the Korean potato salad, which has a cakey consistency and bits of hard-boiled egg on top — and an invaluable facility to cleanse the palate.

Hae Woon Dae's fried dumplings ($1.95) have enough ginger to give them kick, but are otherwise fairly ordinary pot-stickers. Better is the menu's bean curd soup, which includes bits of kimchee and has a porridge-like consistency that will please a fan of hot Southern grits. If you're new to Korean cooking, you'll find the flavors at Hae Woon Dae to be an intriguing mix of the familiar and the exotic.??