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  Beijing Scene

Arisu Korean Restaurant
Authentic Korean cuisine in a bright, clean setting

As a general rule I avoid eating in shopping centers. Mall restaurants are usually over-priced and over-decorated, and the quality of food does not approach that of streetside diners. So it was with some reluctance that I navigated my way through the maze of shops and beauty salons to the fifth floor of the Full Link Plaza to sample Arisu's Korean cuisine.

Despite the up-market facade and smiling hostess at the door, the dcor merely confirmed what I already knew about shopping plaza bistros. An overdose of gold trimming and bright lights do little to create a subtle dining ambience. The tables are divided into compartments which, although more intimate, ensures Arisu has all the character of a hotel lobby. However, once I became accustomed to the brightness of the interior, I could sit back and enjoy my meal in an atmosphere that is in fact very relaxed and comfortable.

Fortunately, Arisu serves authentic Korean cuisine. It is an excellent introduction for anyone with the prejudice that Korean restaurants only serve our four-legged friends on a plate. The service is excellent, the waitstaff are polite and, unlike many restaurants, you are given time to peruse the menu. Having finally abandoned the notion of being able to judge an establishment by its menu, I am pleasantly surprised by the colorful and tastefully presented menu that is placed in front of me. The lively photographs make it difficult to make a decision and it is a relief, therefore, when the waitress suggests a number of dishes for us to indulge in.

The complimentary side dishes that accompany the meal are a well-known feature of the 'Hanjoungshik', or Korean meal, and arrive at our table within a few minutes of having ordered. These include the usual portions of cold fine noodles, pickled cabbage, bean sprouts, and also green beans and battered pork. Previous encounters with Korean food have brought with it side dishes that resemble the leftovers of someone else's dinner. At Arisu however, these dishes are smartly presented and extremely palatable.

Of these accompanying dishes 'kimchi'-a spicy pickled cabbage seasoned with pepper and garlic-is probably the most well known. It is usually offered as an appetizer to stimulate the appetite before the main meal although it does appear in a variety of main dishes as well. A number of different sauces are also set out on the table and we are informed that these are for the main dishes. Dipping sauce etiquette can be a confusing affair for the inexperienced. For although the hot sauce, yellow bean sauce and mustard sauce are all distinct in appearance and taste, we are never informed which dishes they should accompany and therefore spend the evening dipping our food at random.

In order to fully enjoy the cross-section of Korean cooking, there are a number of dishes which are essential to try. At the top of our list is the Roast Top Grade Steak, or 'kalebi', which is sliced in such a way that the beef ends up in one long strip with one end still attached to the bone. The meat is first marinated in soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil and other seasonings and is then grilled, either by you on the small barbeque stove in the center of the table, or by the waitstaff. This tasty dish is a renowned delicacy and we are certainly not disappointed. Referred to as 'pulgoki' in Korean, and known in the West simply as 'Korean Barbecue' it is eaten with cucumber and garlic wrapped in a leaf of lettuce, all of which at Arisu are fresh and crisp.

The barbecued beef soon disappears and its place is taken by a mountain of other dishes. Panfried Octopus and Savory Squid Cake arrive at the table followed by Kimchi with Dofu, and a host of other small dishes. The savory cake is a regular feature of Korean cuisine and is made from a combination of rice, cabbage and root vegetables, often accompanied by a light sesame and soya bean sauce. At some restaurants these cakes can be rather oily, however the variety served at Arisu are tasty, light and provide a satisfying alternative to the usual staples, rice or noodles. The octopus is tender and cooked in a bright red hot sauce which is full of flavor but not overpowering.

The Kimchi with Dofu is a lesser known dish but is a welcome break from the spices and seasonings of the other dishes. Silky tofu squares are positioned around a serving of pork fried in a hot sauce with kimchi.

As far as I'm concerned, the test of any Korean restaurant has to be the standard bibbimbab, a favorite among regular diners whatever their appetite. Known by its Chinese name, banfan, this dish consists of stir-fried rice, a variety of vegetables and kimchi cooked in an iron pot and mixed together at the table with a fried egg and hot sauce. This is a dish that remains consistently good regardless of the establishment in which it's served. Throughout my bibbimbab experience, I have only encountered a few that were too oily, and therefore waited with anticipation as to what Alishui would produce as their special house banfan. It arrived at the table and was quickly devoured. While it may be difficult to go wrong with something that is essentially fried rice with vegetables, this particular banfan was extremely enjoyable. The rice, by which all Asian food must be measured, was neither oily, nor over-cooked but light, fluffy and tender.

By the end of the meal, we have forgotten the sterility of our surroundings and are already well into a post-dining bottle of traditional Korean rice wine. Although slightly pricey and less attractively situated than other restaurants, the quality of food and the first-class service are persuasive arguments for anyone averse to eating in shopping malls.

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