In my last column, I wrote positively about the new Ramen Station in the Larkin development in Grant Park. As it happens, the owners also recently opened a Korean gastropub called Son of a Bear in Decatur. I was excited to try the place because the chef, Jinkuk “Jay” Lee, was formerly executive chef at Breakers, a Duluth restaurant that serves the best Korean barbecue in Atlanta.
Son of a Bear, whose name is taken from a mythological tale, couldn’t be farther from Breakers in most respects. Breakers features borderline-fine-dining in a sleek, black and white dining room with (well ventilated) grills at each table. Son of a Bear is a black-and-red dive with a menu that includes only a few grilled dishes. Breakers serves banchan, the usually free Korean medley of tiny dishes like pickled radishes and kimchi that begin every meal. Son of a Bear doesn’t serve banchan but does have a menu of creative small plates. As is so often true, in short, the dive is a lot more interesting than the fancier place. However, that doesn’t make it better than Breakers, alas.
Four friends and I had a very mixed reaction to our meal. One small plate we all loved was the krispy-crunchy-chewy kimchi rice balls – obviously a spicy riff on the classic Italian arancini. The kitchen also reinvents poutine, the Canadian obsession of French fries piled with sundry savory ingredients. Unfortunately, the fries were tepid and limp, so they didn’t work with the weirdly bland toppings. Glossy fried chicken wings, on the other hand, were deliciously layered with mysterious spices. Perhaps the oddest snack is labeled “cheesy corn (peanut butter).” We didn’t try it, but a friend has since recommended it highly. Let me know.
The main menu includes personal entrees and dishes separately labeled “for sharing.” Screw that. We shared everything we ordered and, frankly, the staff wasn’t helpful in providing the plates and serving utensils we needed. The best dish on the table was succulent, falling-apart braised short ribs and root vegetables. A bowl of “Hangover Ramyeon” – Korean-style ramen – was full of skinny noodles, mild kimchi, bright-red broth, and shaved pork belly. My dining companions weren’t impressed, but I found it more flavorful than the usual Japanese-style ramen around town.
The remaining three dishes sent us downhill. Charred beef bulgogi, topped with some radishes, was an infuriatingly thin slice of steak that was knife-resistant and chewy as hell. The whole fried chicken made me even angrier. The skin was limp. The white flesh was dry. The overall flavor was killed by extreme saltiness. I ordered it because I always get the fried chicken at Dish, my favorite Korean restaurant in the Chamblee area. No comparison.
The dish that most repelled me, at no fault of the restaurant, was the gigantic portion of so-called “Army Stew.” It contained the same ingredients as the ramen we ordered, plus something that I hate: Spam. Nobody at our table would take responsibility for ordering it – the menu does say it’s an ingredient – and nobody would eat it, either. Spam, if you didn’t know, is considered a luxury food in Korea, where more of it is sold than anywhere else. It’s not unusual to see it on menus, including at Dish. I would seriously prefer to eat braised brains or roasted testicles.
I’ve read several rave reviews of Son of a Bear, so I’m wondering if we visited during an off-night. Maybe the other reviewers got drunk at the tiny bar, sipping Soju cocktails and rice beer. Perhaps they made better choices. I’ll go back, but with much more discernment.