Cheap Eats - Duck fit for a Korean at Nak Dong Gang Restaurant
It's a rare occasion when a food writer is in a position to introduce someone to his country's own cuisine. But that is exactly the situation I found myself in the other day when brunching at Nak Dong Gang Restaurant (7130 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-242-0201). One of my companions was Gene Lee, the author of the formidable Atlanta food blog Eat Drink Man ... A Food Journal (www.eatdrinkman.blogspot.com). Lee's pristinely plated dishes, breathtaking photos and steadfast devotion to all things culinary make his site my undisputed favorite in the city. Given his prowess-especially with homespun Korean dishes inspired by his beloved mother's cooking-I was surprised to learn he'd never eaten Korean-style duck, the specialty at Nak Dong Gang. A visit was in order. So, we bypassed the brunch flapjacks in favor of birds that quack.
Nak Dong Gang is simply decorated, but sleek with its dark wood and high-end grills built into each table. Servers are friendly and helpful even if their English is spotty. But there's only one good reason to trek to this restaurant on the upper stretch of Buford Highway: the duck. Whole smoked duck is slow-cooked outside on a spiffy smoker before being delivered to your table for grilling. The meat is sliced and fanned out on a platter, each piece with a sexy layer of duck fat on top of the smoked pink meat. Once it's cooking, you can remove the meat whenever you want, but I try leaving it until most of the fat has rendered, resulting in what's essentially some insanely delicious duck bacon. If your waitress removes it too soon, toss it back on the grill after she leaves. Just a warning: Be mindful when tending to the meat. The hot fat tends to pop off the grill and will burn your hands if they aren't made of asbestos.
Semi-thick slices of yam and pumpkin are placed in the center of the grill to catch the deliciously smoky fat as it drips off the duck. Try a slice at the end of the meal after it has caramelized and soaked up all the rich duck juices.
There are no lettuce leaves, garlic and other standard Korean barbecue accouterments, but you won't miss them. The lightly seasoned onion "salad" and powerful mustard-the intended accompaniments for the duck-add plenty of textural contrast to each bite.
Nak Dong Gang's juk (congee or porridge) makes me mourn winter's departure. This dish was made for cold, rainy days (and hangovers). Individual grains of soft rice float with shredded, tender duck meat, and tiny bits of carrot and scallion in a complex maple-colored duck broth. Try adding a few slices of the crackly duck from your grill to the juk. The crunch of the duck against the silky risotto-like juk is a bona fide oral smackdown.
Prices may seem high for a Buford Highway restaurant, but this is a meal that's meant to be shared with friends. An order of whole duck and a couple of bowls of juk will be more than enough for a table of four or five. There was, in fact, so much food left that Lee-whose chopsticks never stopped moving throughout the entire meal-staked his claim on the leftovers as the rest of us sat in duck-saturated bliss. Something tells me he'll be back.