First Look: Sobban

Minds behind Heirloom Market BBQ create another Korean/Southern mash-up

During an early visit to Sobban, a friend remarked that chefs/owners Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor sure seem to love weird locations. The team's first restaurant, Heirloom Market BBQ, is located in a small space attached to a gas station off an access road that connects Smyrna and Sandy Springs. Despite its size, limited parking, and practically nonexistent seating, Heirloom earned a coveted top spot among our town's barbecue big boys. It's become a bona fide destination restaurant even as it recently transitioned into a purely take-out operation. When the time came to choose a location for a new concept, Lee and Taylor went where the people — well, the college people — are. The pair decided to open their "Korean Southern diner" in the former Kitsch'n 155 location on the relatively spartan stretch of Clairmont Road near Emory University. The odd old building is shaped like a covered wagon and the pair has transformed its bright and colorful retro design into something more soothing. With stone accents, neutral colors, and wood tones, it feels like you are hanging out at a friend's family mountain house somewhere in Korea. There's a bar that faces the street, a handful of booths, and one large communal table situated in front of the open kitchen. An outdoor area with heaters and chairs will soon be converted into enclosed seating to minimize the long waits for seats inside.

The Korean Southern diner concept is novel and ballsy in a land of burgers and farm-to-table Southern. The owners have taken dishes from Lee's Korean background and added a Southern twang. They've also made the otherwise intimidating cuisine more approachable. Where else will you find a fried bologna sandwich with a Korean wink? I live near the restaurant and the area is starved for good ethnic food unless you head to Buford Highway, Cheshire Bridge, or the "little India" of Decatur. Early visits revealed a front of the house so harried and disorganized that the chaos left me on edge. Things have since smoothed out and the servers have become better versed in the menu. The kitchen also shows improved finesse with many dishes, although there are missteps that are hard to ignore. The main culprit? Sugar. And lots of it. With Korean food, there should be a balance of funk, salt, and sweet. Too much of one element and the deceivingly delicate flavors are thrown out of whack. At Sobban, much of the food would be successful if it weren't so cloyingly sweet. The dipping sauces that come with the nori dog and pork chop donkatsu, the homemade pickled vegetables, and the bulgogi that appears during lunch on a pillowy hot dog bun and over rice at dinner, all suffer from a heavy hand when it comes to sugar.

So far, the appetizers and a handful of mains are the most successful items on the menu. The pan-seared beef dumpling's shiitake and chives filling is rife with smoke, a nice nod to Lee and Taylor's barbecue background. The dumplings' handmade skins are delicate, but a few times arrived at my table undercooked. Fat, square slabs of smoked pork belly "bossam" lie like fallen dominoes on a long and skinny white plate. Seasonal green wraps such as baby gem lettuce brighten up the tender, smoky meat. The accompanying pecan ssam sauce and miso mousse add salty, umami layers of flavor. A simple green salad of pristine mixed local lettuces is made hearty with a creamy sesame leaf ranch dressing and crunchy bits of puffed rice croutons. Deviled eggs are given the Korean treatment with chopped kimchi in the filling for a little funk and tang. One of my favorite appetizers was the seafood pancake. The first bites of the kimchi pancake are thin and crispy before giving way to an almost creamy center laced with green onions and homemade kimchi. The pancake is topped with perfectly fried calamari and shrimp, and comes with two dipping sauces: one spicy and creamy, the other light and sweet. My one criticism would be that the fried dehydrated kombu (kelp) topping is practically impossible to eat without breaking a filling.

Although the kitchen struggles with the balance of sweet and fat, the combination works best in the Korean fried chicken wings, a fan favorite that sells out quickly. The chicken wings are doubled in size thanks to a substantial layer of crackly, fried batter. The wings are drenched in a sticky chili ginger sauce that's spicy, sweet, salty, and earthy. The pork chop donkatsu reminds me of an Italian breaded veal chop. The bone-in pork chop is pounded thin, breaded in homemade panko coating, and deep-fried until it is a golden brown. It comes with sweet brown potato rice, which is super earthy and full of shredded nori. The nori corn hot dog, a homemade mix of brisket, pork butt, spices, and nori, is dipped in a tempura batter and sprinkled with panko then deep-fried. Although it is tasty, it is very heavy and I have yet to see a person finish it. A dish of braised guinea fowl is fork-tender and the kind of meat dish I yearn to eat every fall. It also comes with the sweet potato rice. I haven't had much luck with any of the soups. The chicken kalguksu was so heavy on sulfur notes one night it killed my desire to ever try it again. Same goes for the bibimbap and bulgogi, although the deterrent there was the overwhelming use of sugar.

When you are actually craving something sweet, there are Korean shaved ice desserts topped with everything from azuki beans and house-made rice cakes to Pop Rocks. There's no liquor, but plenty of booze, including craft beers, Korean wine, sake, and some other choices. If you like cinnamon, the sweet ginger cinnamon tea is worth getting from the non-alcoholic section. Even though the restaurant is just a couple of months old, it is regularly packed with Emory students and foodie fans of Lee and Taylor. Despite the enthusiastic crowds, the food is average with promises of greatness. Let's hope the greatness comes soon and that this endeavor isn't the duo's sophomoric slump.

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