Chef Sungchul Shim opened Kochi in a small Hell’s Kitchen space at the end of 2019. It got its liquor license a few months later, one day before the citywide shutdowns in March of 2020. Still, Shim’s Korean skewer tasting menu managed to rack up accolades in spite of the industry tumult that followed.
Kochi now tops our lists of the best restaurants in NYC, it received a Michelin star earlier this year and it just won Time Out’s Best of the City award in the restaurant category. Today, Chef Shim is opening his second venture nearby.
“We went through a lot of things and survived,” he says in the hours before opening the doors to Mari. “It’s challenging, but I try to believe this concept will work because we put so much energy and so much technique and so much fun. And also I’m Korean and I want to make our own creative Korean menu.”
Shim’s two restaurants are separated by a few blocks and an avenue. Reservations at both are booked through the weekend.
“I feel confident,” he says. We have a great team, the fundamentals are so good, so that’s why I feel more comfortable. The restaurant business is not only by one. You have to make it together. Design, menu, service, beverages, it’s very complex. I’m really lucky to have these people to work with and to make together this Korean food culture.”
His second solo venture swings away from the sensational skewers that won Kochi so much acclaim and into new prix fixe terrain with a $125, 12-course prix-fixe inspired by Korean street food.
“This is not only a hand roll restaurant, this is a Korean full tasting,” Shim says. “The reason why I chose a tasting format is that I try to give guests a full experience, not a half. The same as Kochi. Kochi’s inspiration is a skewer. Now, I’m using the kimbap.”
Many of the ingredients that go into his snow crab, red caviar, pork belly and Wagyu beef varieties are prepared on-site.
“Almost everything we make in-house,” he says. “I think that’s the key thing. Because Korean food is all about soy sauce, fermentation and timing. So we make all the key ingredients for the kimbap, which is a Korean hand roll, in house. All the pickles and sauces and condiments, we make here. We have over 10, 12 different kinds of preserved vegetables and 15-20 different house made sauces.”
Also key: another open kitchen, kind of like Kochi’s. The Mari team built an island work space in the center of the dining room.
“Guests can sit at four sides of the bar and they can watch us: What we do, what we prepare and what we’re serving,” Shim says. “A restaurant is not only selling the food. The guests have to enjoy, they have to have a good experience. They come here not just for a meal. So I try to give them more fun. It’s very dynamic; I think guests really like it.”
The rest of the pretty space is lined in pale wood banquettes, tables and chairs with pops of color in the blue upholstery. It seats 30 inside with room for 20 more in its heated outdoor dining area. The hand rolls that anchor Mari’s menu are bookended by other dishes like a sundubu with little neck clams, mussels, shrimp and charred scallion chili oil and a choco pie with sponge cake, black sesame seed marshmallow and strawberry jam to finish.
“It’s kind of like, I want to show them a Korean showcase,” Shim says.