Last year, two months after the sign went dark on the strip mall storefront of Aroma in Cary, it lit up again. The obvious conclusion was that the Indian restaurant was back in business.
Obvious, but wrong — as you discover when you walk up to the restaurant now and see the the words “Sushi — Grill — Bar” painted on the door. And even that isn’t the full story of the new Aroma’s specialty cuisine.
Make that cuisines, plural. The name of the new restaurant is in fact Aroma Korea, the first word chosen presumably for the sake of expediency, and to save the rather substantial cost of having a new sign made. The menu is divided more or less equally between traditional Korean and Japanese fare, with a sprinkling of outliers such as an East-West fusion take on a crudo and a handful of variations on the Hawaiian poke theme.
If all that sounds confusing, it helps to know that the owners are Ellie Han and Seungwor Lee, both Korean natives who also happen to be veterans of several years in area Japanese restaurants. According to Han (she’s the dining room manager with an unfailingly warm welcome), the partners met while working at Maru. Sushi fans will recognize chef Lee as “Mr. Lee” from that restaurant and from Sono and M. Sushi, where he has also worked.
Lee’s experience is evident in his precise knife work and skillful assembly of everything from classic nigiri sushi (noteworthy for their generous fish-to-rice ratio) to elaborate house specialty rolls. If you like to order sushi à la carte, be sure to check the specials board, where you’ll typically find half a dozen or so temptations. Recent options have included abalone, kurodai (black sea bream), kanpachi (amberjack), and ama ebi (jumbo shrimp, in a striking preparation that presents the tail raw, and the head deep-fried).
Presentations are exceptionally attractive, even by sushi bar standards. Chirashi don, traditionally served as an assortment of sashimi casually strewn over sushi rice (chirashi means “scattered”), is here presented as six separate stoneware bowls in a bento box, each containing a different fish on its own small mound of rice, each with a different garnish.
The Korean repertoire is well-represented, too, with separate menu sections devoted to three pillars of the cuisine: bibimbap, ssam, and jjigae. All come with a small assortment of house-made Korean pickles and kimchi, called banchan.
A perennial favorite, and a worthy option here, is bibimbap, which serves up a colorful medley of vegetables and the protein of your choice — six options, from tofu to bulgogi (Korean barbecue beef) over rice. Bibimbap, probably the most famous single Korean dish after kimchi, is served here as it should be, in a traditional hot stone bowl to keep the food warm, and garnished with a runny fried egg and ribbons of nori.
Ssam, a culinary mashup of Korean barbecue and lettuce wraps, is nearly as much fun to assemble as it is to eat. The barbecue itself is cooked in the kitchen, and arrives on a sizzling bed of peppers and onions. Served with a side of rice and a small dish of seasoned soybean paste (careful, it’s salty; a little goes a long way), ssam is offered with your choice of four meats: bulgogi, galbi (marinated beef short rib), dak galbi (spicy chicken) or samgyupsal (pork belly). Better still, round up a friend or two and spring for the BBQ set, which gets you any three of the four.
You’ll also need a couple of hungry buddies to help you tackle budae jjigae, one of four Korean hotpot options under the Jjigae heading. Once the dish lands on your table — an unlikely hodgepodge of ramen noodles, spam, sausage, Korean sausage, fish cake, kimchi and vegetables in a spicy broth that’s still simmering on arrival — you’ll understand why the name of the dish translates loosely to “military stew.”
For a, shall we say, more pacifist but equally rewarding variation on the theme, try soontofu jjigae: tofu, assorted seafood, vegetables and a runny egg in a spicy pork broth, served for one in ample portion.
Can’t make up your mind whether you’re in the mood for Japanese or Korean? You don’t have to. You could easily mix and match your way to a multicultural feast of small plates from the appetizer selection alone, where you’ll find the usual suspects from Japanese tempura to kimchi pancake, as well as a few surprises such as bulgogi fries (think Korean poutine).
You’ll probably want to include an order of KFC (that’s Korean fried chicken, twice-fried and extra crispy), served with your choice of sauce (classic spicy garlic soy or spicy gochujang) in your feast. And if you’re feeling adventurous, shishamo (thin, six-inch long fish — their name means “willow leaf” — with a moderately strong flavor, skewered and fried whole) are just what the doctor ordered.
The kitchen also turns out a an eclectic selection of noodle and rice dishes ranging from Nagasaki ramen (seafood in a pork bone broth) to bokkeumbap, Korean-style fried rice) and a handful of Japanese entrees served with rice and a salad. I haven’t yet sampled the chicken katsu, billed as one of the chef’s signature dishes.
But I’d happily nominate another dish for signature status: hyedupbap, a Korean meal-in-a-bowl that serves up an assortment of sashimi over crisp mixed greens and rice, with a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce (like gochujang, but lighter and brighter, with a citrusy tang) on the side. As you eat it, you can’t help feeling you’ve got one foot in Japan and one in Korea. I’m pretty sure Mr. Lee would be gratified to know that.
160 NE Maynard Road, Suite 114, Cary
Cuisine: Korean, Japanese
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: casual, warmly welcoming
Noise level: low
Service: friendly and attentive
Recommended: sushi (check the specials board), KFC, shishamo, ssam, soontofu jjigae, hyedupbap
Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Other: beer and wine (including sake and Korean wines); accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars:Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars:Above average. 2 stars:Average. 1 star:Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.