Koreatown and the Annex are crowded with Asian restaurants.
But if you’re looking for authentic Korean barbecue, look no further than Arisu on Bloor at Markham St. While many Japanese selections including sushi are also on the menu, the focus is authentic Korean BBQ.
There are many elements that make this restaurant of over four years stand out from the rest:
1. Both owner James Lee and head chef Daniel Yoon hail from Korea. Lee says, "Having a Korean owner and chef matters."
2. Arisu is much larger than most Korean restaurant, seating 140 inside and 58 on the new patio.
3. Arisu is the only restaurant in Koreatown to serve authentic BBQ, both in ingredients and method.
4. It’s the only restaurant in Koreatown outfitted with Korean barbecue tables.
Lee came to Canada from Seoul 27 years ago, after majoring in dairy science at university, but his love of Korea and its food remains. In the dining room, a stunning sculpture and table mimics a wood oven used back home. The booths come with a button that you press for service, also very traditional in Korea.
But it’s the food that truly makes him proud.
"Some Korean barbecue not authentic. It’s about the right self-ventilation of the barbecue - air moves to the right or top - and the types of marinated meat used are important. It should be quality meats such as pork belly and Korean beef short ribs. Some restaurants are serving squid and lamb, which are not authentic, and their marination is not known. We immerse our meats for a minimum of two to three days in a marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and Korean pear," Lee says.
Grilled beef short ribs come off the grill tender and juicy, pork belly is sliced so thin that it’s crispy like bacon and not at all sheer fat like those ones you’ve had downtown. Vegetables such as asparagus and enoki mushroom can be done as little or as much as you like, as you control the 'cue.
Many dishes that are very popular in Korea can also be found on the menu. Lee says, "Korean food is much more than pork bone soup and bulgogi."
Take the Fermented Soy Bean Soup, for example. This bubbling concoction is satisfying without being heavy. Ssam Bap features thick slices of pork belly (again, not fatty in the least) enveloped in soybean paste that you add a ball of nutty, chewy multi-grain rice and wrap a variety of fresh-from-the garden lettuce leaves including boston, head, green leaf, endive and raddichio. It's so addictive, you’ll order it every time you visit.
And watch as buckwheat becomes your favourite noodle thanks to the Black Cod Soba ($25) dish, served warm with green tea. While these noodles have heft, they are not heavy like the Italian version. And served with buttery sablefish and green tea, it’s one of the most delectable, well-rounded meals you’ll have this week.
As the more traditional food and drinks continue to be added to the long menu of table hot pots & ssams, hot and sizzling stone pot dishes, and Hallah, Baek-Du and Secret Garden selections, Lee is trying to reflect the Korean philosophy of "food is an expression of medicine, coming from the same source." By choosing certain items, you can better your health. Lee says, "Our body and atmosphere is supposed to be the same."
Which is why he is a proponent of local and seasonal foods. Meat is purchased from The Butcher Shoppe, and in the works, Paradise Farms. More local and grass fed selections will be added to their current roster of bison, Black Angus, and Kobe-style beef.
While many dishes boast healthy ingredients, Lee recommends eating as the Korean do and consume cold noodles after a meal of Korean barbecue. "It remove fats and cleans your system. This is why after eating buckwheat noodles, you should eat sliced pear or radish."
In addition to lunch and dinner items, there are many Korean specialty drinks such as honey citrus tea, five flavor berry, red ginseng and Korean-style cinnamon punch. There are also cold aloe drinks, shochu and Korean beers. And while not Korean, a nice find amongst the bottle is high-end Oban whisky, which not too many restaurants carry, especially Korean ones.
To finish the meal, a cleansing rice wine and honey citrus dessert - Chef Yoon’s own creation- is a must.
Many of the dishes are available in a 3-course set menu Sun-Thursday $29.99, Fri & Sat $34.99, as well as individually.
Lee travels the globe to research dishes. On a recent trip to New York City, he was not impressed, even with the high-end restaurants in Manhattan. "Ours is better. Theirs isn’t authentic," he says.
Arisu is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Also available: take out, delivery, catering and private function bookings.
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