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Review: Salaryman is Japanese-Korean tavern with East Lake address

Be prepared for the heat level of the Hangover Ramen at Salaryman. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Be prepared for the heat level of the Hangover Ramen at Salaryman. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

After a long day staring at a computer screen, it’s natural to want to loosen your tie and relax. If you’re a salaryman, you unwind with the same people you’ve worked with all day.

A salaryman is a Japanese white-collar worker who shows intense loyalty to his employer. And it’s the premise for the newest concept from Atlanta restaurateurs Michael Lo and George Yu of Korean Wives Hospitality Group.

Located in East Lake at Hosea L. Williams Drive and Second Avenue in the space formerly occupied by Mary Hoopa's House of Fried Chicken, Salaryman exudes the nonchalant, casual personalities of its second-generation Chinese-American owners. In that regard, it's quite in keeping with their other current concepts — Noona Steakhouse & Oyster Bar in DuluthRamen Station in Grant ParkSuzy Siu's Baos at Krog Street Market — and recently shuttered ones — Taiyo Ramen in Decatur and Son of a Bear in Oakhurst. And like its sister restaurants, the food and beverage here is a multicultural marriage with Japanese and Korean ties and a U.S. mailing address.

“Salarymen are expected to work long hours, participate in after-work leisure activities such as drinking, singing karaoke with colleagues, and to value work over all else,” reads the description on the restaurant’s menu.

When I met up after work recently with AJC food and beer writer Bob Townsend at Salaryman, we didn’t break into a karaoke duet, but we did enjoy a couple of rounds.

The nearly dozen signature cocktails each snag an ingredient or two from the Asian bar well. Traditional Asian Medicine is a highball that combines Mars Iwai, a Japanese whisky aged in bourbon barrels, with scotch, lemon, honey and ginger. Thanks to a sizable ice cube, the drink slowly mellowed as it diluted; the flavor profile is so similar to a toddy that I’d be keen this time of year to sip it warm. Negroni drinkers ought to try Salaryman’s version, which gets satisfying depth and intensity from, of all things, chocolate. Even teetotalers can partake. Among the trio of mocktails, try the Pineapple Ginger Mule.

The bar at Salaryman in East Lake offers nearly a dozen signature cocktails. There’s also plenty to please those who appreciate beer and sake. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
The bar at Salaryman in East Lake offers nearly a dozen signature cocktails. There’s also plenty to please those who appreciate beer and sake. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

The beer crowd will find not only local craft brews, including the cloudy, pucker-inducing Three Taverns Ukiyo Japanese Rice Lager, but also Japanese labels Sapporo, Orion, Yo-Ho and Hitachino Nest White Ale.

Especially fun to peruse is the sake selection. It’s an educational read as you flip the pages of a tiny photo album to learn about Koji sake — the house junmai — or offerings like the Diplomat from Nashville’s Proper Saké Co. No matter which you choose, your server will nestle an ochoko cup inside a wooden box, known as a masu, and pour until that cup overflows. It’s a traditional Japanese service meant as a gesture of kindness to show appreciation for your business. Your job: Bend your head down and sip from the ochoko. Once you can pick up the glass without spilling the contents, remove it from the masu and drink the extra liquid directly out of the box.

The sake overflow pour at Salaryman flanked by a Three Taverns Ukiyo Japanese Rice Lager. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
The sake overflow pour at Salaryman flanked by a Three Taverns Ukiyo Japanese Rice Lager. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

The sake treatment is the most traditional among food and beverage elements you’ll encounter at Salaryman. From hot apps to cold sides to a handful of ramen bowls to meat and seafood entrees, the dishes here are a hodgepodge of Japanese and Korean mainstays, albeit with plenty of liberties taken.

The Kimchi Fried Rice Balls (left) and Rice Cakes at Salaryman mix Asian and Italian influences, and the results are delicious. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
The Kimchi Fried Rice Balls (left) and Rice Cakes at Salaryman mix Asian and Italian influences, and the results are delicious. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Kimchi Fried Rice Balls and Rice Cakes are both Asian-Italian mashups. They work. And they happen to be the two dishes I’d most recommend. The former is akin to arancini: two sturdy, golf ball-sized rounds — the interior a mix of rice and gooey cheese (the fermented funk of kimchi was decidedly absent), the exterior fried to toothsome crunchiness — resting on dabs of spicy Korean chile paste gochujang thinned to sauce consistency.

Gnocchi-ish Rice Cakes are a playful variation of tteokbokki, a traditional Korean street snack of chewy, cylinder-shaped cakes made from rice flour and tossed in spicy red chile paste. At Salaryman, the dense white tubes are showered in spicy sausage, Parmesan cheese and shreds of peppery arugula.

Korean Fried Chicken Wings are among the hot appetizers at Salaryman. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Korean Fried Chicken Wings are among the hot appetizers at Salaryman. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Hot meat appetizers like Korean Fried Chicken Wings studded with black and white sesame seeds and green scallions and Crispy Korean Pork Ribs were both satisfying, although neither was remarkable. The tender ribs were less crisp than the name implies; barely pickled red onions did little to cut through the sweetness of the thick, sticky glaze.

Pickling and fermentation at Salaryman need improvement. Its tsukemono, a varying selection of Japanese pickled vegetables, couldn’t even pass for a quick pickle. Its kimchi lacks the funk of fermentation; the presentation of cubed white radish kimchi served in a tiny, white cafeteria bowl was particularly drab.

The Sashimi Mixed Platter, which brings two pieces each of salmon, tuna and hamachi, is a bargain at $10, but the fish didn’t have the flavor, texture and luster of high-quality raw fish. At $10, you get what you pay for.

Ramen is rampant in Atlanta — whether in dedicated ramen shops or as a darling menu item (like roasted Brussels sprouts — what do you know, they have those at Salaryman, too!). The tonkotsu ramen here is mostly serviceable, and certainly filling — with the dark pork bone broth and noodles tangled with bamboo shoots, an egg and scallions. Curiously, the 50-cent upcharge for extra spice didn’t come with nearly the heat level of the nasal-clearing Hangover Ramen. A holdover from their recently closed Son of a Bear, the noodle soup features pork belly, a poached egg and kimchi lacking fragrance and funk.

BiBimBop was a flop. Though the sizzling hot cast-iron skillet was an impressive presentation, the flavors of this classic Korean rice dish didn’t perform a K-pop number.

The staff on the floor, however, does perform. Servers are versed on the menu and prompt to take orders and remove and replace dishware. Although I was recognized during my visits, other tables appeared to receive the same attentiveness. In short, they are working hard for the money.

Is everyone, though?

Just below the explanation of the restaurant’s moniker are the following directives: “Don’t be a salaryman. Don’t work too hard.”

Patrons — especially the pub-seeking crowd — will likely enjoy a fun, laid-back experience here. That would improve if the salarymen in the kitchen pulled some weight.

SALARYMAN

Overall rating: 1 of 4 stars (good)

Food: Japanese-Korean bar and grill

Service: friendly, rapid and attentive

Best dishes: Kimchi Fried Rice Balls, Rice Cakes, Korean Fried Chicken Wings, Crispy Korean Pork Ribs, Hangover Ramen

Vegetarian selections: Cheesy Corn, Kimchi Fried Rice Balls (vegan upon request), Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Stir Fried Market Greens, BiBimBop (with mushrooms), House Salad, Japanese Pickled Vegetables, Napa Cabbage Kimchi, Pickled Yellow Radish, White Radish Kimchi, Steamed White Rice

Price range: $$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 4-10 p.m. Sundays

Children: with adventurous palates

Parking: free parking lot

MARTA station: East Lake

Reservations: not necessary

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: average

Patio: yes

Takeout: not recommended

Address, phone: 2371 Hosea L. Williams Drive, Atlanta. 404-228-1458

Website: koreanwives.com/salaryman/

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