A new city restaurant has David Burton breathing fire.
" Ari rang."
"Did he? What time?"
Sorry, but that corny joke is the only way I can remember the tongue-twisting name of Wellington's newest Korean restaurant, which turns out to be the title of a folk song.
On its website, Arirang says, "Our goal is to be the best Korean restaurant in Wellington - best food, best staff, and best environment". Given the rising competition, which has already seen two Korean establishments fall by the wayside, that's some ambition.
Arirang does win with its fit-out: sort of Wagamama gone arty, it's very svelte. The ceiling is one big cluster of futuristic lamps: smaller versions of Poul Henningsen's 1958 artichoke light. The bare walls are broken with bold floral silhouettes, which further soften what would otherwise be an austere box.
Then there's the bare floor, blonde pine tables and benches. Yes, benches. The wooden bench, I often feel, is most at home in a monastery. Because there is no back to offer comfort or even relief, the message seems to be: "Yes, please do sit ramrod straight, don't get too comfortable, don't enjoy your food too much - just eat your fill, leave soon and make room for the next customer."
Yet paradoxically, Arirang's menu, an ambitious, 39-strong repertoire, positively begs the diner to linger. The menu culminates with a section of Special Dishes, one of which costs $40.
Our feast began on a bright note, with an elegantly arranged plate of "Bossam & Donkas". Bossam referred to slivers of pork belly topped with a pleasant, slightly chilli-hot pickle of daikon radish, which like all the kimchi served at Arirang, is made on the premises, and not bought in. Donkas proved to be nicely crisp, panko-crumbed and deep-fried pork cutlets. Being indistinguishable from the Japanese tonkatsu, these were presumably introduced into Korean cuisine by the occupying Japanese during the first half of last century.
The Japanese also brought sushi, which too is on Arirang's menu.
The ultra-thin crockery aroused my interest in the wrong way. I tapped the platter, then my white water beaker, then our water bottle. Plastic, all plastic. Again, this seemed at odds with the upmarket menu, and a far cry from the elegant hand-thrown Korean pottery at the late, lamented Dahra Korean Bistro.
From their adequate wine list, I chose a glass of Omaka Springs pinot: its excessive acidity and porty character was nice with the sweet soy sauce marinade of the Tteokgalbi, or minced beef. Made with short ribs, the beef had been minced and then rearranged as squares on flat squares of bone. Other chefs mix pork with the beef to make it a little less lean - a sound idea, since this rendition proved somewhat dry, tough and overcooked.
The grand finale was one of the chef's specials, a chicken and potato stew known as Dakdoritang ($25). Served at a furious boil on a table-top burner, the staff seemed alarmed when I immediately switched the gadget off, explaining as politely as I could that I didn't want a second lot of meat to overcook.
The fury continued with a bout of chilli torture, which rose in degrees from gochujang (red chilli paste) to ample fine slivers of scud missile (Thai birds-eye chilli), both inventions of the Devil.
We emerged from Hades as dragons, breathing fire.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Dakgangjung Dakgangjung, or spicy deep-fried chicken, is served in bite-sized chunks, firm on the outside but succulent in the middle. They're coated with a sticky glaze based on soy sauce, sugar and vinegar, and are thus very much like retro Kiwi-Cantonese sweet'n'sour.
ARIRANG, 89 Ghuznee St
Phone: 385 1874
Open: Monday-Saturday for lunch, 11am to 2.30pm, and dinner, 5pm till late, closed Sundays
Average price of mains: $15 Cost: $65 for two (excluding wine)
Wine list: 3/5
- The Dominion Post