A large prime rib-eye steak cooks on the table-mounted grill at Ari Korean Steakhouse. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Review: Korean BBQ meets steakhouse style at Ari

What makes a steakhouse? Is it the beef, the thick red slabs marbled with rich veins of white fat? Or is it the house, the tufted leather booths and luxurious touches that place a diner in the lap of comfort?

Ari Korean Steakhouse, a rather large restaurant perched at the center of a shopping center on Medlock Bridge Road in Johns Creek, certainly has both. If you order a cut of Angus rib-eye or prime short rib, the raw meat will be presented to your table with eye-popping pride, leaving no doubt that these are excellent cuts of well-marbled beef. Your eyes will also be drawn to certain elegant details: the stylish black-and-white pattern of penny tile laid on the floor, the tall, almost private-seeming booths, the artfully designed menus, the gilded touches along the tabletop.

Ari Korean Steakhouse in Johns Creek features upscale, modern decor, with semiprivate booths that are each equipped with in-table grills. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

The similarities mostly end there. Ari is a restaurant in the Korean tradition of gogigui, literally translated as meat roast but usually known as Korean barbecue, where meats are cooked in the center of the table and served with banchan (small side dishes), lettuce for wrapping, and so on. You won’t find any heavy steak knives on the table here, only metal chopsticks and long handled spoons. Owner Jae Woo Lee, who also operates Tree Story Bakery & Café in Duluth, opened it last year. Even among Atlanta’s thriving Korean barbecue scene, though, Ari has clearly endeavored to distinguish itself from the crowd, self-consciously adopting the tics of American steakhouses.

The result is a restaurant in-between, not much like the free-for-all atmosphere of busy, loud all-you-can-eat joints like Honey Pig nor the over-the-top indulgence and luxury of Chops or Bones. At times, the balance between the two styles can seem awkward, not polished enough to be a true steakhouse, not indulgent enough to be KBBQ. If you go to Ari looking for either of those experiences, expect some level of disappointment. Yet, over the course of my recent meals here, I’ve found plenty to love.

Servers at Ari Korean Steakhouse use kitchen shears to cut up large pieces of meat on the grill, making it easier to eat and share. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

Any meal will begin with more than a half-dozen bowls of banchan, little bowls loaded with pungent kimchi, soy braised peanuts, pickled jalapenos and radishes, and the like. It is plenty to nibble on at the beginning of your meal, but you shouldn’t miss the kalbi bao. These fluffy buns are packed with a payload of rich short ribs cooked to a decadent, melting tenderness. The salty-sweet marinade lingered on my tongue, like an oil slick of the most delicious kind, long after I inhaled the bun.

But, of course, you’ve come here for more than a decadent little bite. The menu at Ari offers several ways of approaching this, including lavish, expensive “Butcher’s Feast” combinations of the restaurant’s best cuts portioned for parties of four or so, the more traditional Korean barbecue option of all-you-can-eat portions of certain cuts, and an a la carte menu, including Prime-certified short rib, house marinated pork belly and traditional dishes like bulgogi.

The seafood pancake is a savory side dish at Ari Korean Steakhouse. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

It is possible to order exactly as one might at any steakhouse: a rib-eye and a cocktail. There is a full bar here, though I can’t recommend the house cocktails. Both the New Fashion, which spins a rye Old Fashioned with an added splash of St. Germain, and the Yuzu, which is something like a margarita with yuzu juice in place of lime, arrived too sweet for my taste. I much preferred a simple classic — a gin martini with a twist — which arrived dry, refreshing, cold and strong.

The Angus rib-eye served here is a little more than an inch thick, well marbled and scored so as to render fat a little more quickly and, eventually, make the need for a knife irrelevant. Your server will deliver the steak raw and patiently cook it on the attractive gold-lined grill at the center of the table, which quietly vacuums the smoky air of cooking steak before it ever enters the room.

This is not so different than the pleasure of ordering a tableside Caesar salad or beef tartare at an American steakhouse. The young men that work the tables here have the attentive focus of experts, and it is a pleasure to watch as they patiently render the fatty meat, adjusting the heat along the way, and, with tongs and long, sharp scissors, trim the steak into caramelized, bite-size portions, perfect for picking up with chopsticks.

The result is quite different than the thick, medium rare slices I’m used to carving off a rib-eye. The bites are a touch thinner and less aggressively seared. I wondered, I admit, if this was the best use of such a cut of meat. There is no arguing, though, with the flavorful, tender wallop you’ll get from swooping a piece through a slurry of sesame oil and salt (served in a side dish) and letting the bite melt on your tongue.

I liked ordering the side set of mushrooms, which include a generous portion of thin, tender enoki mushrooms that soak the steak’s rendered fat and caramelize wonderfully on the grill.

Fresh oysters are served on a mountain of shaved ice at Ari Korean Steakhouse. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

You won’t get that kind of unusual steakhouse pleasure from the all-you-can-eat menu, which excludes the choice cuts of beef. That’s not to say you won’t enjoy it. Among the options, you must order the beef bulgogi, ribbon-thin slices of beef in a deeply savory soy marinade, cooked down with scallions and slivers of onion. The result is a juicy explosion of flavor, perfect for folding into a crunchy leaf of romaine lettuce.

Unlike many Korean barbecue joints, you’ll have to pony up a few extra bucks for sides of egg soufflé and baskets of lettuce for wrapping. For some, I suppose, that’s too much when so many places in town offer all-inclusive bare-bones budget prices. I was glad to pay it, though, when the soufflé arrived in a hot pot, sizzling and full of light, airy texture, unlike the eggs that often overcook on the side of the grill.

Aside from the bulgogi, there’s plenty of pleasure to be found in the all-you-can-eat options. Ari marinades pork belly in a variety of surprising flavors, my favorite of which is a funky, pungent garlic pork belly cooked to a chewy, slightly caramelized crunch. A slick slab of pork shoulder renders out into meaty bites, perfect for loading up with spicy heaps of sambal. Brisket is cooked down in classic, whisper-thin slivers.

This isn’t a steakhouse or a Korean barbecue restaurant, at least as I know them. That’s exactly why I’ve grown fond of Ari.

<<Ari Korean Steakhouse

Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)

Food: Korean barbecue

Service: attentive, though unpolished

Best dishes: kalbi bao, Angus rib-eye, prime short rib, bulgogi

Vegetarian selections: almost none

Price range: $$-$$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays

Children: family-friendly

Parking: ample parking lot

MARTA station: none

Reservations: not necessary

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: quiet

Patio: no

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 9700 Medlock Bridge Road, Johns Creek. 770-802-8800

Website: aristeakhouse.com

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