Mari is NYC’s best new restaurant that you aren’t going to see on any year-end best-of lists.
The same thing happened with Kochi, chef Sungchul Shim’s first solo spot. Kochi opened with a sensational Korean skewer tasting menu at the end of 2019; late enough to fly under the radar of that year’s roundups. It didn’t quite get its rightful due in the months that followed, either, as the hospitality industry was pummeled by chaos. But it prevailed, topping Time Out New York’s best restaurant list and going on to collect a Michelin star and other accolades.
Mari opened in December, and similar applause will come. Shim is one of NYC’s most talented chefs, and his Mari swaps skewers for another tasting menu of mostly hand rolls and extraordinary ancillary items for $125.
Dinner at Mari’s high-gloss, muted-hued chefs counter or in the comfortable dining room beyond starts with a beautiful hansang. Clockwise to the center: An opaque acorn jelly, oyster with makgeolli mignonette, eggplant jeon (on a skewer like an insider wink to Kochi), Wagyu tartare and a sensational sphere of one or two-bite crispy egg rice, best tasted in that order.
It’s real "kid in a candy store" stuff, all exquisitely executed save for maybe one too many drops of sauce on the tartare, which almost obscures that inimitable beef flavor that people pay a premium for. Each element’s expert preparation and presentation would be notable on their own. Combined in this tantalizing fashion, they articulate the abundance to come and easily establish Mari’s quickly earned best-of status.
The sundubu that follows on Mari’s January menu is its best dish, negligee-slinky tofu complemented by chili oil’s gently rising, subtle heat and studded with perfect clams, shrimp and mushrooms. It's dainty with substantial flavors, and you’ll want to dip into it like a heart-shaped hot tub.
Eight of twelve present courses are those hand rolls, which will likely remain the majority. Each is a study in culinary architecture, maintaining structural integrity between bites where less-skillfully constructed hand rolls would come apart, sending their king oyster mushrooms, scallops and mackerel flying like fast-deflating cartoon balloons. But these are all as easy to hold as they are pretty to look at. They're also outstanding to taste. Salmon under a lovely crown of caviar and spicy tuna are highlights among the shining lineup.
Mari is refreshingly absent a beverage pairing and the resulting feeling that the sometimes convenient, sometimes galling, always tab-inflating conceit can effect. (I’m already spending so much money that I might as well; This is surely the best way to experience this meal; What if I’m missing out?) Instead, it has a tight four fun cocktails, including the bracing Death by Rye (whiskey, red vermouth, Campari) and the near-sweet gochujang Margarita (both $16).
Subtly brilliant or slyly intentional, Mari also has a self-guided drink tasting, if you know where to look. Five sool pours are listed in perfect (and succinctly detailed) order to accompany Mari’s courses.
Plenty of written tasting notes veer into poetry that’s swell to mull without ever imparting any information. But Mari’s “plum/floral/dry” Seoul Night ($14) is just that; likewise the “smoky/full body/pungent" Pungjeong Sagye ($19) and the “fermented soy/mushroom/earthy” Yangchon Chungju ($15.)
Start from the top of the list and let the three-ounce pours flow for an impeccable pairing that’ll ultimately run $74, should you let it reach its conclusion. Play it to the end to sip the creamy/strawberry/raspberry Red Monkey with Shim’s marvellous take on the Choco Pie, which layers chocolate sponge cake, black sesame marshmallow, strawberry jam and milk foam and anoints it with a fleck of gold that could never dream of shining as bright as the excellent restaurant around it.
The Vibe: The very heartbeat of ease across 30 seats between a chef’s counter and comfortable dining room. Low-key elegance abounds.
The Food: An excellent tasting menu comprised mostly of outstanding hand rolls with extraordinary ancillary courses to begin and end.
The Drinks: Kicky cocktails and brilliantly curated sool options, plus wine, beer and spirits to sip.
Time Out Tip: Order from the top of the sool menu and keep ‘em coming for a kind of DIY-beverage pairing.
Mari is located at 679 9th Avenue and is open Tuesday-Sunday from 5pm-10pm.