We like introducing our friends in the community who we think make a difference to the culture through their vision, spirit, creativity, and hard work. Decatur is fast becoming known as one of the best towns in the country for foodies, and one of our new favorites is Makan, established near the square by Michael Lo and chef George Yu.
By John Manasso
Michael Lo always longed for authentic Chinese and Korean culinary experiences inside of Interstate 285.
And while the University of Texas MBA worked for seven years in corporate finance at Home Depot, he also yearned to do something entrepreneurial with his career. It was in his blood. Despite minimal formal education, his father, an immigrant from Fujian Province, which sits on the southeastern coast of China, retired at age 50 after running a chain of mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants.
Thus was the impetus in 2014 that give birth to Makan, one of Decatur’s most unique and up-and-coming restaurants. The amiable Lo acts as general manager, often greeting customers and providing a helpful explanation of the menu, and George Yu serves as executive chef. Yu was classically trained at Le Cordon Bleu and previously worked as sous chef at Midtown’s Ecco.
The two partners had known each other for years before going into business together. Their wives, both of Korean heritage, were long-time friends. When Lo went looking for a chef to help execute his vision for what ITP Atlanta lacked, Yu, who also is ethnically Chinese, represented an ideal choice.
In many ways, Lo is trying to accomplish locally with Chinese food what some celebrity chefs have done nationally with Italian food — that is, overcome the stereotypes of certain Americanized versions of regional cooking, such as the ubiquitous spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce.
Most Chinese food found in the United States is the Americanized version of Cantonese food, as Cantonese have comprised the largest immigrant group to this country. However, growing up in Philadelphia, Lo dined on his mother’s dishes of succulent steamed seafood and noodles.
“My personal goal is to create more understanding and more demand for better Asian food in town,” Lo said.
A recent trip to Makan (the Indonesian verb “to eat;” Lo preferred it for its easy spelling and marketability, and pronounced MOCK-in) would indicate that he is well on his way.
Makan, which rotates its menu about every two months, mixes some reliable favorites with others that fall a little more on the exotic side. Visitors should not miss the House Kimchi, a chef’s selection that is made seasonally, or the House Pickles.
Kimchi is a Korean preserving technique in which the food is brined. Typically, Makan brines its Kimchi for two weeks. In May, that made for a brightly flavored Napa Cabbage that held an appetizing crunch. The House Pickles, made of ramps and leaks, were equally pleasing, albeit with softer textures.
An unexpected surprise was the Sliced Hwe, which the menu labels as “Korean Sashimi.” Lo explains that many concepts in Korean cuisine are similar to those in Japanese — it’s just that purveyors of Japanese cooking have done a better job of marketing their product to the American public. The Sliced Hwe — in this case, sushi-grade salmon that melts in your mouth — comes with a delightful presentation of thinly sliced pickled vegetables, mostly cucumbers and carrots, and gochujang vinaigrette, a tangy spice paste.
Four Dumplings, Northern Style — dumplings and buns rank among Makan’s best sellers, not to mention best buys at $8 — are cooked-to-order and arrive about half the size of a fist. The wrapper offers both a light crunch and a soft chew. Inside, the natural flavors of the local ground beef and pork, seasoned lightly, play the starring role.
For entrees, Lo suggests a pair of beef dishes, one grilled and one braised. The Kalbi Marinated Hanger Steak would be the envy of any steakhouse, a light pink on the inside and crisp exterior paired with a ssamjang sauce (a wonderful mixture of fermented bean paste — similar to miso — and hot pepper paste). The braised beef shank is akin to the Italian Osso Buco with European herbs replaced by slight undercurrents of ginger and hot pepper. Also served with stewed carrots, onions and potatoes, the earthiness of this dish is cut by the mild acidity of braised kale and grilled cherry tomatoes.
Makan also offers a full bar program — on this night a lively birthday party filled the spacious bar area — and dessert. A simple sponge cake topped with gelato made from Korean rice wine and a thin stream of caramel provided an ideal coda.
Lo has big plans. He’s negotiating leases elsewhere in the area for other concepts than he can spin off from Makan.
“When we did this endeavor, we decided to do it in a very deliberately different way,” he said. “It’s meant to stand out and be different than what 99 percent of people associate with Chinese food.”
In essence, he wants to upend preconceived notions about Chinese and Korean cuisine.
So far, so good.
Now you know Michael Lo and Makan!