Arirang's rice dreams

Arirang’s menu boasts Japanese and Korean eats, but the latter’s bold flavours and generous portions win the biggest.

Bi bim bap till you drop at Arirang.
Bi bim bap till you drop at Arirang.

SUSHI REVOLUTION. The words are big and bold, lit by the dull glow of a neon "open" sign in the windows of Arirang.

The revolution is a quiet one: the dining room is empty when we arrive. We are quickly greeted by a smiling server, who ushers us to a table and hands us menus. We flip through the pages, some focusing on Japanese fare and others on Korean.

The restaurant is relatively Spartan, with a few pieces of stock artwork dotting rosy pink walls. Spot lighting creates little pockets of light throughout the room, where two chandeliers hang, dazzlingly out of place. In the back half of the restaurant there is a curved, red counter where the chef works, diligently slicing fish and rolling maki.

We decide to start with a mix of Korean street food, dduk boki ($8.50), and bar food, the corn butter ($5.50). I also decide to try the unagi roll ($5.95) from the Japanese side of the menu, which we've largely ignored due to the spicy appeal of the Korean dishes. We also each order a soda ($1.75).

The boki is great. Thick, chewy rice sticks make up the bulk of the dish. They are soft and sticky, dense and satisfying. The texture of rice sticks, or cakes, isn't for everybody, but if you like it, it can be addictive. Korean fish cakes, carrots, some wilted greens and hard boiled eggs are mixed in with the rice sticks, coated in a thick gochujang sauce. It's a brick-coloured chili paste that has a whap of heat that plays off of a sweet, salty tang; it's like a pungent ketchup.

The corn butter is a sizzling plate of cheese-covered corn niblets. A sauce of garlic, butter and mayonnaise pools around the corn, bubbling and popping on the hot plate under the weight of shredded mozzarella. It's pretty decadent, and very delicious.

The unagi roll is a letdown compared to the Korean dishes. The rolls are loose, verging on sloppy, with small slices rubbery BBQ eel tucked beside relatively overwhelming avocado. I push it aside in anticipation of our entrees, the dolsot (stone dish) bi bim bap ($13.95) and the chicken gal bi ($14.95).

Our server whisks over pushing a cart that is covered in dishes. Along with our main plates we are given a trio of banchan, traditional side dishes, which includes some sour, slightly spicy cabbage kimchi, moo saeng chae, a tart and refreshing salad of julienned daikon, and gamja jorim, little cubes of tender potatoes glazed with a sweet soy sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. We also each have a cup of miso soup, which gets a little lost in the spread and goes almost uneaten.

Heat is radiating off of the dolsot, and rice is sizzling in the sesame oil at the bottom of the stone bowl. The toppings are lovingly arranged in an array of colourful wedges that bring to mind a victorious Trivial Pursuit game piece. A sunny egg yolk glistens in the middle of the carrots, bean sprouts, daikon, spinach, lettuce and beef. It's a hearty, savoury bowl made even better with generous spurts of spicy gochujang. The crispy rice at the bottom is especially irresistible.

The chicken, once again seasoned with gochujang sauce, is tender and delicious. The meat is punctuated with slices of fresh vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes. It's very good, and very filling. The bowl of rice that accompanied goes ignored, almost unnecessary with such a big serving.

While the sign in the window brings all of your attention to the so-called "sushi revolution" at Arirang, it's the Korean food that makes this small restaurant a real dining destination. So forget the sashimi and maki: let them eat rice cakes!

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