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First Look: Gaja

Korean hideaway in East Atlanta defies expectations

The red neon sign near Gaja's entrance simply reads, KOREAN FOOD. For some this label may conjure images of all-you-can-eat barbecue or steaming bowls of kimchi stew, but they would be wrong. A fitting subscript to the glowing sign might read, "Abandon all expectations, ye who enter here."

From the first step through the door, almost everything about the new East Atlanta hot spot Gaja is a surprise. The restaurant is unexpectedly large, housed in a raw, underground space with soaring ceilings and minimal decorations. Tacked on the wall are vintage Korean film noir posters with old gangsters in black and white, juxtaposed with cartoonish illustrations inspired by children's textbooks. The design is gritty and sleek at the same time, with concrete walls and simple wood and metal furniture. Smith Hanes Studio, which also worked on the Optimist, No. 246, Watershed, and other local joints, handled Gaja's design.

Many U.S.-based Korean restaurants are geared toward large parties, with huge communal tables anchored by a grill. But Gaja is made for individuals, couples, and small groups. The restaurant seats 70, mostly at tables for two to four guests, with several stools at the bar as well. It's a casual place to have a sit-down dinner, to dip in for drinks with buddies, to take a first date, or to stop by for a solo late-night snack. One person could try several dishes without racking up a triple-digit bill.

That's exactly what the restaurant's founders wanted. Gaja began with brothers Tim and Danny Song, along with their partner, chef Allen Suh. The three had been dreaming of starting a business together for nearly four years, even before Suh left fine dining and launched the popular Gato Arigato pop-up series. It took some time to refine the Gaja concept, but the idea of fun was always at its core.

The trio envisioned a place that felt like them, kids who grew up with traditional Korean families, but who were also immersed in American culture and played in punk bands and ate McDonald's. They say the inspiration came more from pojangmachas, street-side tents that serve up junk food perfect for drunken revelry, than typical sit-down establishments.

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The menu is sorted into smalls, a la carte appetizers and snacks, and bigs (entrées) served on silver lunch trays with house-made vegan kimchi, rice, and two seasonal sides. Most of the small plates are less than $6 and can be easily divided into shareable, bite-size pieces. Order a few to sample the variety of flavors. An approachable, crowd-pleasing option is the chewy rice cakes, stacked into a small pyramid and bathed in spicy red pepper sauce alongside a hot spring egg with an exquisite runny yolk. Another go-to is the scallion pancake, a dense and buttery slice of savory-sweet flavors that very loosely resembles a standard Korean pajeon, a thin, pan-fried disc of flour-battered vegetables and meats. For the adventurous, the corn-cheese is not to be missed. It's cheese, corn (both canned and fresh), and popcorn topped with seaweed. There's also the anchovy and peanut brittle, a bold reinvention of a common Korean bar snack consisting of stir-fried fish and nuts. Careful to keep any particulars close to the vest, Suh has hinted that "more hardcore" dishes are on the way.

During a recent visit, the standout main was the short rib platter. The beef was juicy and tender, with a finger-licking salty sauce and scallions. The tofu, a roasted slab covered in American cheese and sprinkled with sesame seeds, got the thumbs up from vegetarians and meat-lovers alike. It's the ideal stomach-padding guilty pleasure to wash down with a few beers. This dish looked and tasted like something Suh must have cooked when he was stuck at Gaja but craving Krystal. The hamburger mixed rice, a newer addition to the menu, is a greasy bibimbap concoction with an MSG-laced beef patty, potato, smoked spinach, cucumber kimchi, onion, and bits of other vegetables, slathered in red pepper sauce. Stir it all up with a spoon, dig in, and share with friends. At $17, it's the most expensive item on the menu, but there's plenty to split with another person or two.

Gaja's beverage menu is short and sweet. There is a carefully selected list of $5 beer cans that pair well with Suh's cuisine — think acidic and light brews, not full-bodied ales or stouts. Atlanta's superstar bartender Miles Macquarrie consulted on the cocktails, which are all based on classic drinks but with a Korean twist. The tasty Sonic Reviver No. 2, for instance, is a remix of the Corpse Reviver #2 with the addition of citron honey and a minty perilla leaf. Gaja also offers a number of imported libations, such as soju, makgeolli, and Hite beer, as well as non-alcoholic Korean mainstays like Sac Sac fruit juices, Chilsung cider, and Bacchus-D energy drink. Most of the wackier foreign drinks are just $3 and yield all kinds of pleasant surprises, like a mouth full of pear chunks or a jolt of sugary herbal medicine.

For best results, approach Gaja with an open mind and an empty belly. Don't visit expecting to save a trip to Buford Highway. Don't expect anything at all. Just go along for the ride and have fun.

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