It’s instructive to wander up First Avenue in the East Village — one of the city’s most interesting and diverse restaurant rows — and see what places are thriving at 6 p.m., and which are not. On a recent Tuesday things were pretty dead, and only a couple of places were more than one-eighth full. But then I got to Ariari; knots of customers lingered outside, excitedly meeting friends, as the place was filling up fast. I stepped inside and requested a two-top and was told the wait would be an hour.
Year-old Ariari is just one restaurant in the burgeoning empire of prolific Hand Hospitality restaurateurs Kihyun Lee and Jinan Choi, who have been turning out restaurants, mainly in Midtown, at a frenetic rate, restaurants which often seek to remake our idea of Korean food. I made a reservation for a week later at the opening time of 5:30 p.m. under an assumed name, and went with a friend. Here are my notes.
The vibe: Since its founding 12 years ago, Hand Hospitality has become adept at setting just the right atmospheric tone in each of its bars and restaurants, which now number an astonishing 18. (Not all of them have succeeded, with Thai spot, Random Access, Palpal, and the Korean hot pot restaurant, On, having shuttered.) Ariari makes itself almost invisible to passersby with its plain beige facade, and no sign to speak of — making patrons feel like they are in on a secret, but also discouraging strangers that might wander in not aware they soon may be eating cold soba or offal-laced soups.
In this case, the decor looks like a diner, with dinette-style metal furniture, framed photos of Korea, a bustling kitchen and bar at the rear, and an illuminated niche filled with jars of pickled vegetables — making the most of a small space and perfectly capturing today’s casual but rambunctious East Village vibe. The tables are closely spaced, the noise level almost deafening, and the place feels like a party.
What to drink: Wine, soju, beer, and cocktails are available, but I enjoyed mild-tasting wines made with raw rice called makgeolli, including Red Monkey ($42) and White Lotus ($36). The former is made with red yeast rice, while the latter is flavored with lotus leaves and milky in appearance. Each is unique, and definitely worth trying.
The food: The menu of Ariari is at least partly inspired by the food of Busan, but lacks some of the signature dishes of that Korean port city, which faces Japan. There’s a creative bill of fare with some old favorites and some evolved dishes, some of which work and some don’t. The meal begins with a free saucer of fresh kimchi, cool on the tongue and slightly sweet. The dish will be replenished as your meal progresses. My absolute favorite was salmon hoe gooksu ($17), brown and toothy soba noodles in broth, concealed under a heap of crushed ice that’s been flavored with makgeolli. Tendrils of raw salmon sit atop.
The soups, really stews, were also sterling, including the hap-cheon ($26), featuring various cuts of pork and its offal flavored with handfuls of chives. Every bite was absolutely terrific. On the other hand, the fried chicken flavored with curry powder was boring, and the seafood pancake — too small and greasy — was not up to the restaurant’s fine level of execution.
The cost: A very filling meal for two, including tax and tip, but no alcohol, comes in at $130, which seems about average for a bistro-level meal these days. All things considered, not a bad deal given the unique nature of the food and the pleasantness of the experience. But don’t forget to book ahead — reservations are available very early or very late most days.