When Wan Bok Lee moved with his family to NoVA in 2005, the Seoul native noticed that while all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue is trendy in our region, what he found was not what he craved. “I don’t mind paying a little extra for good-quality meat that really brings me joy,” says Lee.
“We don’t want the image of Korean barbecue to be cheap junk meat. I want to show people in the United States that this is Korean barbecue. This is what regular people eat in Korea.”
The solution? Starting a business of his own. Honest Grill, a collaboration with workout buddies Will Won and Sanghyun Lee, got its name to show the sincerity with which the team approaches meat.
Not everyone shares Lee’s ethos. The profusion of lower-quality all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue restaurants in our region (I love them too!) is ample evidence of that. But for those who are seeking a more refined version of the meat sweats, there is no competition for the fare at Honest Grill.
Wan Bok Lee returned to Virginia from New York in 2016 to help his mother open Taste of Korea in Chantilly. He brought her basic recipes, like banchan, appetizers such as a seafood pancake, and rice-based entrées that include bibimbap, to his new spot, where they are executed by chef Sanghyun Lee, also a Taste of Korea alum.
Much like the carefully curated list of meats, there aren’t boatloads of banchan, but the trio of kimchis sparkles with flavor, particularly the effervescent cabbage version. There’s a pair of salads, as well—scallions dressed in a pleasantly fiery gochujang-based dressing, and an “Italian salad” of lettuce with cherry tomatoes and Italian dressing.
The nod to Italy continues on in the appetizer selections, with an admirably seared pile of scallops served in cast iron with garlicky lemon butter. Though there’s no issue with execution, and the shellfish itself is lovely, it’s an uneasy fit with the other, more robustly flavorful dishes.
I found myself ordering interchangeably between the appetizer and entrée menu, which boast similarly priced and sized dishes. The best of these is the beef tartare noodles. There is both a beef tartare dish and a spicy cold buckwheat-noodle dish on the menu—this one combines the two with lip-smacking success.
The chewy, slick noodles are buried in individual piles of toppings. It’s up to the diner to mix together the matchsticks of marbled CAB (certified Angus breed) sirloin, fluffy strands of omelet, radish sprouts, and crunchy Asian pear with the sweet-and-spicy red sauce before munching. The portion is large enough to supply leftovers, and the mixture is just as appealing after a turn in the wok the next day.
Choosing and sourcing the meat for the tabletop grills is the realm of the three co-owners. With the exception of Iberico bellota pork imported from Spain, the meats are overwhelmingly regional or local and never frozen. Instead, Won ages them to achieve optimal tenderness and flavor. Cuts of the fatty Spanish pork, for instance, are wet-aged for a minimum of 14 days. CAB prime rib-eye is dry-aged in-house for 45 days and awaits diners in a display window at the front of the restaurant. Even the less expensive beef, such as outside skirt and galbi (short ribs), is uniformly Angus that’s wet-aged for 21 days. The result of this is meat that’s not only more tender but also has the beefy funk synonymous with upscale steakhouse fare.
The servers at Honest Grill have got to be some of the hardest-working men and women in the business. They make pleasant conversation (I even got some useful tips for cleaning cast iron on one visit) as they cook the meat to juicy, char-crusted perfection at the table. They’re exceedingly well-educated on their wares, too, rattling off aging times with ease.
The meat arrives attractively arranged and covered in complementary herbs. The rib-eye, for example, is plated with sticks of thyme on top. The server places the thick, 12-ounce steak on the grill, asking your preferred temperature. He seasons the meat and then replaces the thyme while it cooks. He uses scissors to cut the steak into bite-sized pieces. The galbi, on the other hand, is covered in sprigs of rosemary.
Diners have to ask for rice, but it comes free of charge. In fact, sides, even with a combination or “guide,” are limited to the veggies and a steaming stone bowl of mild soybean stew. Don’t expect popular add-ons like corn cheese or steamed egg.
Sauces include a smooth ssamjang (soybean paste), sesame oil with salt, and a combination of mustard and mayonnaise thinned out with more sesame oil. There’s no teriyaki, no hot sauce—nothing to detract from the flavors of the flesh itself.
The highlights among these are, not surprisingly, among the most expensive. That $78.89 rib-eye melts with fat that all but vaporizes into rugged-tasting beef air when it makes contact with molars. The Secreto, a cut of the Spanish pork from above the pig’s shoulder, has a strong flavor of its own and is even more impressively supple than the beef.
As of yet, Honest Grill doesn’t have any desserts. If you’re craving something sweet, I recommend ordering the Beef Guide, a combination platter of cuts that ends with sugary marinated rib fingers. Another option lies on the drink menu—there are a few flavors of soju as well as Korean rice wine, blackberry wine, and a few selections of Western wines and beers.
Honest Grill is worlds away from the casual Korean barbecue spots that have overtaken NoVA. Think of it more as a serious Korean-style steakhouse, ideal for diners who savor quality over quantity.
14215-H Centreville Sq., Centreville
See This: The dry-aging window at the entrance augurs good things. Once in the dining room, images of meat surrounding the comfortable booths cement the theme of the evening.
Eat This: Beef tartare noodles, dry-aged rib-eye, Secreto
Appetizers and Entrées: $12.89–$23.89, Meats: $19.89–$79.89
Open seven days a week for dinner, opens at 1 p.m. on Sunday
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior