I’ve always liked the saltiness of Capel St. It seems like a stretch of boundless opportunity, it’s a bazaar in the form of a street. Pawn shops, all you can eat Chinese buffets, dildo dealers, bong peddlers, graphic designers – whatever you need, Capel Street has you covered. It is perhaps the most Catholic of Dublin streets and I’m not referring to magical virgins. There’s also some pretty solid Korean food to be had. Arisu was opened in 2010 by Yoon He Cho and Gantack Lee, a couple of actual Koreans and John Farrell, (Luna, 777 etc) a man who clearly knows his onions, has been a cheerleader for this place for some time. Judging by the calibre of the cooking and the value for money on offer I’m somewhat baffled by the apparent failure of their second outpost in Rathmines, which shuttered a couple of months back.
As you have doubtless noticed, Korean food is having something of a moment. This is due in no small part to the ministrations of one David Chang. In fact, I find it almost impossible now to consider Korean food without the Monofuku creator’s doughy, sweaty visage hoving into view. To give you some idea of this chef’s ubiquity and the extent of his influence, he has just partnered with both Heinz and Amazon to put a bottle of Momofuku Ssäm Sauce (a very moreish gochujang-based condiment) into every American refrigerator. Have no doubt, this will be the new Sriracha. Chang built his empire by playing fast and loose with Asian technique and flavour profiles to conjure a pan-Asian repertoire that has become his own. See also – Danny Bowien. This is not what you come to Arisu for. This is straight down the line Korean cooking (with some needless nods to Japan). It respects the standards and that’s just dandy with me.
I’m joined by my current wife, her old friend Colonel Abrams and Swench, Abrams’ current squeeze who happens to be an old friend of mine. Lovely. Upon our arrival, we are promptly shown to the worst table in the house, right at the back, which I am not having. When I point out that I have a reservation (which you don’t strictly need) we are shown to the best, in the main dining room. It has a certain ramshackle charm. The room is packed with people who like to eat and want to talk. It’s a good buzz. We are ostensibly here for the gogi-gui (barbecue) because I rather like the idea of having a hand in the cooking of my own viands. Swench doesn’t partake of the flesh of mammals but he’s a good sport and he’s not humourless about his decision to deny himself one of the chief pleasures of existence. As she takes the order our server (who is cute as a button and hyper-attentive) slots in a fresh can of butane and fires up the grill at the centre of our table.
We order the somewhat prosaically named ‘Set B’ from the barbecue menu which comprises prawns, pork ribs, bulgogi beef, spicy beef and lamb chops. Gogi-gui is traditionally served with a selection of banchan (side dishes) and at Arisu that means a little salad of seaweed and cucumbers and a bowl of Kimchi, which is most people’s gateway drug to Korean food. Both are excellent and we immediately order more. From the grill the bulgogi and spicy beef are the clear winners. For the latter, hand-chopped sirloin has been liberally spiced with what I suspect was gochu garu (Korean chili powder). Our server quietly but firmly refuses to corroborate my hunch. Wrapped in a lettuce leaf and anointed with soy and ssämjang it is a very good thing indeed. It is the barbecue dish worth returning for. Much of the other proteins are a tad ho-hum, although not for a lack of attention from our server. The chicken evokes a very faint recollection of the flavour of chicken. It could have used some kind of marinade or a dry rub.
You could skip the steamed pork dumplings too, the filling is as mealy as the exterior is claggy. The arrival of a steaming bowl of Dolsit Bibimbap rights the ship. Served in heavy stone bowl and topped with a raw egg yolk, we are encouraged to mix the components (beef, rice etc) together. As bibimbap literally means mixed rice this makes perfect sense. The result is a deeply comforting and gently savoury counterpoint to some of the more strident flavours on display. It reminds me of a luxe Tamago Kake Gohan, the Japanese breakfast staple of short-grain rice with raw egg yolks. Swench’s Seafood Rabokki is a winner too. It’s a profoundly spicy ochre-hued stew of mussels, prawns and rice dumplings that I would have preferred to be alone with. With a few rounds of Asahis and a bottle of critter-label wine we struggle to spend forty bucks a head, so I order a flask of chilled Sake for good measure. Arisu is affordable and fun and I imagine a good choice for a place to bring someone you’d like to undress at some point. Although perhaps not for the all you can eat buffet.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photo: Killian Broderick