First Look: Char
Traditional Korean BBQ comes with a side of cheeky fun in Inman Park
The space has a cool, industrial vibe — plenty of wood and metal — and '80s and '90s music thumps. Sleek overhead venting and fire extinguishers accompany each grill-topped table. On temperate evenings, doors roll up, opening the square 20-seat bar to the patio. The “10 Char Commandments” painted on the back wall (including “Political correctness is not part of our policy”) allude to the restaurant’s theme of irreverence.
Helming the kitchen is chef de cuisine Shaun Byun, going solo after the quick departure of original executive chef Ryan Catherall (Tang says only that it's "the dawn of Shaun"). Byun draws from experiences at the recently shuttered Cockentrice and Sun in My Belly, as well as his family’s own Korean restaurant. The menu lists traditional Korean dishes, from bar bites to cuts of beef and pork, and sizeable combos named for North Korean leaders. One includes a “sack of fairy dust,” though the 10 Commandments note that “unicorns and fairy dust are usually 86’ed.” Tang's goal “is to take a sensitive issue and have fun with it.”
No value assignedUninitiated adventurers can begin with Korean-inspired versions of bar favorites. Crisp Korean fried chicken wings ($12) are brilliantly hued with sharp fermented gochujang sauce. A trio of deviled eggs ($6) varies slightly from other pubs with the enhancement of kimchi. The crisp exterior of scallion pancake wedges gives way to a gooey center, which sops up the tangy dipping sauce. A good accompaniment is smoked veal brains ($11), a rich and unctuous spread served in a hinged glass jar emitting wisps of smoke.
Classic Korean BBQ options come with a bowl of rice and ssam (lettuce wraps). Banchan, the traditional small plates that usually come free at Korean restaurants, cost extra here, but the quintet of seasonal pickled and marinated vegetables are a worthy $6 addition.
You can order meats cooked for you while sitting outside or at the bar or DIY at the grill-topped tables, pending city approval (expected to come through this week). Servers will offer plenty of instruction on timing, slicing the cuts of meat with scissors as you flip them.
Char’s commitment to quality is unmistakable in the heritage breed pork. Bossam ($12), made with spicy braised pork belly, has a melting tenderness, marinated in a harmony of sweet and garlicky flavors. There is no correct way to eat these slivers of meat. Wrap them in lettuce with bean paste and rice or kimchi. Take the meat straight off the grill for instant gratification.
No value assignedSkip the shrimp ($13 and lacking flavor) and stick with the meats. Domestic wagyu comes from Texas and rare cuts of Kobe from Japan. Order the off-menu A5 Kobe topped with uni for the most decadent bite available. Marinated bulgogi is sweet and savory — and a much thicker cut of dry-aged filet mignon than most Korean spots in town. One order ($13) comes with five slices. The short rib (kalbi) is tender, subtly marinated in a blend of garlic, ginger, onion, soy, sesame, and black pepper. Brisket ($11) comes off the grill charred and chewy with a slight bronzing.
Prices are a bit steep and add up quickly, but combos can help. Kim Jun-Un ($80) will satisfy two people with 3-ounce portions of marinated short rib, brisket, pork belly, spicy pork, tongue, and banchan with rice and lettuce wraps. Kim Jung-Il doubles those portions for $120.
Desserts complement the pop music soundtrack: fun, familiar, unabashedly saccharine. “It reminds me of my childhood, simpler times,” says Tang of the fried Twinkies ($6), molten chocolate lava cake ($7.50), and astronaut ice cream ($6). Sing-a-longs do happen here.
No value assignedChar boasts a carefully curated whiskey selection alongside a variety of sakes and sojus. Sapporo flows on draft, and there is a strong list of bottled beers with a couple Atlanta names. You can even order wine coolers and Smirnoff Ice, if you’re so inclined. The cocktail menu has the food in mind — lots of ginger and spirits like baijiu, a Chinese sorghum-based liquor. Brown Eyed Girls ($9) mixes sesame-infused bourbon, sugar, and bitters. Char’s take on a Penicillin ($9) uses a less peaty Scotch with lime juice and ginger.
Trendy Inman Quarter’s end goal seems more about the vibe than the food, and Char is no exception. The bonus is, despite the restaurant’s irreverence, the food holds up to tradition, and service is attentive and knowledgeable. “I’m trying to bring authentic Korean food with a more refined service and a bar-friendly environment,” says Tang. “We are not fine dining but there to provide a higher caliber of service without any of the pretentiousness.”
Char Korean Bar & Grill. 299 N. Highland Ave., Suite S. 404-525-2427. www.charatlanta.com.