Restaurant Review - Honey Pig: Convert to Korean 'cue
I'm convinced there are those of you out there who still haven't ventured to the corners of the city to seek out Atlanta's dizzying variety of ethnic food. Not only that, I'm convinced it's not for lack of wanting. The reasons hardly matter. It might be the intense American fear of appearing out of place. I suffer from this affliction myself. What if I can't read the menu? What if I'm the only white girl in the building? What if the food is too weird, I can't eat it, I offend my hosts, and I'm chased out into the parking lot by an angry mob? Obviously I've overcome these self-doubts for professional reasons, and also because the payoff is so huge. But my guess is that many of you haven't.
Well, kids, this one's for you. If the above set of totally understandable anxieties describes you at all, or if you've never ventured into a Korean barbecue restaurant but have an inkling that tons of grilled meat cooked in front of you might be fun, then get thee to Honey Pig. It's about the most delicious, least intimidating Korean restaurant imaginable. In fact, it's downright upscale. "I could bring my parents here," my husband observed, somewhat impressed and somewhat disgusted. (He adheres to the skuzzier-and-weirder-the-better ethos when it comes to ethnic eating.) The stone and black lacquered-wood accents and comfortable, fat leather chairs create a calming atmosphere that would please almost anyone.
This isn't to say that Honey Pig is inauthentic or watered-down. On the contrary, the "samgyeopsal jip" is a specialized type of Korean barbecue house that deals in pork belly. The style of service, cooking and eating here is slightly different than at a regular Korean barbecue restaurant. There's less pan chan – the numerous side dishes that usually accompany Korean meals – and pacing and progression are highly ritualistic.
Waiters lead you through your menu choices with enthusiasm and intelligence. There are numerous pork belly options, including a number of marinated versions, but the house specialty – the honey pig – is the way to go. The difference is the meat. It comes from a suckling black pig – the breed preferred by discerning Koreans.
Your choices made, the iron, dome-shaped grill at the center of your table is lighted and food begins to arrive. A cold, tangy soup combining vinegary acid with mild chili and thinly sliced radishes acts as a palate cleanser to start you off. Lettuce leaves for wrapping, chili and bean paste for seasoning, and spicy marinated onions for accompaniment jostle for space in front of you. A waiter arrives and heaps kimchee and bean sprouts on the grill. And then, the meat – platters arrive and the waiter begins to grill. As the meat begins to crisp and cook, your server snips it into bite-sized pieces with giant scissors, and pushes it toward you to signal it's ready. Take it from the hot grill, grab a swipe of bean paste, a scoop of kimchee sizzling in front of you, wrap the whole thing in lettuce and let the meaty gluttony begin. The cool lettuce and pickled condiments calm the decadent pork, and the bean paste acts as savory seasoning.
There are plenty of beef options, too. The best is the prime short rib, marbled with fat and intensely flavorful. Two or three people can easily eat one order of pork and one of beef. There's also seafood – scallops and shrimp – that are fun, but to my tastes not as suited to the style as the meat offerings. The marinated pork is tempting, but must be cooked on tin foil because of the goop on it, and doesn't achieve that super-crispy bacon sex appeal.
A few pointers: The raw garlic that comes with the bean and chili paste? Put it on the grill. Those things that kind of look like Kraft Singles? Pry them apart and put them on the grill. They're yummy rice-flour thingies that satisfy the carb component of the experience and can act as an alternative wrapper for the meat. Don't let that short rib meat cook too long – snatch it up once it's been turned. The meat is high-quality and you don't want the juicy, melty flavor cooked out of it. Pace yourself.
Once you've stuffed yourself silly and think you can eat no more, the waiter arrives with a bowl of rice studded with nori (the dried, savory seaweed used to wrap sushi). On the grill it goes, enveloping all the leftover meat and kimchee. Spoon it up and realize that it's the exact counterpoint you needed to all that fatty meat. A bowl of bubbling piquant miso soup with tofu and zucchini is the final touch. This may be my favorite part of the meal. It's a kind of savory dessert of champions – complex, comforting and exactly right. You can feel an ancient wisdom of progressive eating wash through your body.
If all this still sounds intimidating, let me assure you again: Waiters here are welcoming and intensely interested in making sure you get what you want and feel comfortable in your choices. You're unlikely to feel out of place. And if you are a seasoned ethnic eater and haven't been to Honey Pig yet, what the tarnation is wrong with you?