Restaurant Review - Seek and ye shall find Yet Tuh
A Korean culinary oasis just off Buford HighwayMonday April 2, 2012 04:00 am EDT
There's a certain joy in reaching a restaurant that's hard to find, especially when the food warrants the search. Yet Tuh hides on the backside of a building that itself hides a few hundred feet off Buford Highway, down a long curving driveway. There are no (English) signs that I can discern pointing the way. Luck and a bit of advanced planning are required to locate this little place, but, once you do, you will be rewarded with a small oasis of Korean calm and carefully cooked food.
Yet Tuh is run by Hang-ho Lee, who moved here from Korea eight years ago. Her approach embraces the traditional, the "way things used to be" back home. In fact, the name "Yet Tuh" roughly translates as "the place where something used to be." She still relies on contacts in Korea to ship hard-to-find ingredients over, to make sure everything remains true to form. Lee's menu mashes up the unfamiliar alongside Korean staples, and shows that this is decidedly not your typical Korean barbecue or tofu house. Platters of simple grilled fish precede plates of mackerel boiled in spiced soy sauce; barley rice with vegetables and soybean paste follow an acorn jelly. There are elaborate stews and basic noodle soups, pancakes (pajeon), and roasted chicken hearts. Luckily, the staff, despite a bit of a language barrier, is happy to make suggestions.
One suggestion I can't resist is Yet Tuh's kimchi stew. While the temperature of the stew holds steady somewhere just shy of boiling, the deep kimchi burn seems to come in like rolling waves hitting the shore, never overpowering, but building up some kind of cumulative impact. Sure, it's hot, but the word that most comes to mind for this dish relative to other kimchi stews in town is "finesse." The balance of the spice, the just-right presence of a citrusy tang, the yieldingly tender cabbage, the still-crisp slivers of onion, the perfectly cut cubes of tofu bumping up against bits of pork — it all demonstrates a delicate and sure hand in the kitchen, a kind of culinary umami skill that leaves you smacking your lips in appreciation.
Likewise, Yet Tuh's barley rice (bori-bop), a house specialty, is a bowl of beauty. The final dish is constructed layer by layer at the table, and, like many Korean tableside preparations, the act becomes almost ceremonial. Then the eating begins. As I dig in, growing more excited with each bite, I can't help but think of the beautiful grain bowls from David Sweeney at the Bakery at Cakes & Ale. Flavor, texture, color all come together, and I'm left with a kind of serenely healthy satisfaction. To me, this earthy, wholesome bowl of barley defines the term "destination dish."
Other dishes come close to that mark, yet some fall short. After all, this is a large and diverse menu. The seafood pancake hits the sweet spot of crisp exterior and custardy interior, and how the squid and shrimp within stay perfectly cooked throughout the meal is beyond me. While the gelatinous nature of acorn jelly is not my cup of tea, I love the bright salad of chopped carrot, radish, lettuce, apple, and its fabulously good dressing with chili and sesame oil that constitutes half the dish. Also not my cup of tea? The slightly pickle-y and oily mackerel in the spiced soy sauce with kimchi. I can tell this dish demonstrates a talented hand, but my still-too-American palate hasn't quite yet embraced fish like this.
Yet Tuh's menu warrants exploration, and the setting soothes any anxiety that might arise in trying something new. Like most good Korean restaurants, the house-made panchan (those free little plates of strange and wonderful tastes that arrive at the beginning of your meal) whet your taste for adventure, and quickly immerse you in the dining experience. On one of my visits, most of the Korean crowd at other tables sat happily, noisily slurping their stews and soups. A lone older gentleman, though, sat by himself in silence, enjoying his bowl of barley in peace. I'm guessing that it's food like this that is the secret to his longevity.