Jeannie Han calls her new South Hill restaurant “the little, casual sister to TheKoi.”
TheKoi is Han’s upscale sushi restaurant near the University of Washington Tacoma that had a former life under the name TwoKoi until Han, the longtime manager, became the sole owner in June.
While TheKoi offers a sophisticated dining room with the area’s largest sake list, cushy booths, wood accents and hanging lanterns that turn the room moody at night, Sushi Ari’s dining room carries checkerboard linoleum floors and easy-clean tabletops that won’t get a toddler banned for tipping the soy sauce.
And families with kids is precisely the demographic Han is hoping to attract to her restaurant that opened two weeks ago across from South Hill Mall.
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But don’t confuse Sushi Ari with those in-and-out-fast teriyaki restaurants sprawling across South Hill. Sushi Ari, with its red, sage and black motif and tall ceilings, is more attractive than those. And the menu is higher concept, although still plenty approachable for families with young diners. It also has one big bonus that South Hill needs more of: It’s not a mega chain with the same exact menu served from Peoria to Puyallup.
Her concept is close to the mission of the building’s former tenant, Trapper’s Sushi, which moved to a roomier restaurant in Sunrise Village in February. However, while Trapper’s Sushi relies on towering ingredients and over-the-top flavors and presentations (I call it “Guy Fieri Sushi”), Sushi Ari and its sister restaurant offer simpler presentations with artful plating. It reminded me of the offerings of the former Kanpai in downtown Puyallup.
Like TheKoi, Sushi Ari boasts a far-flung menu that mashes up nigiri and maki with an assortment of Korean (bulgogi, kalbi, kimchi) and Japanese (yakisoba, teriyaki) hot dishes.
It’s this newspaper’s policy to curtail criticism of food and service until after the restaurant’s first month of business. That being said, a first-bite visit exploring a fraction of the menu found sharp presentation and a focus on customer service, both details that are as likeable at sister restaurant TheKoi.
The thoughtful platings were courtesy of chef Charlie Chong, who Tacomans might remember from I Love Bento, the recently closed restaurant near Tacoma Community College.
Sushi Ari’s 16-item nigiri list reads solid, but basic (read: no toro or geoduck) and has a 32-item maki selection ($4-$13) that resembles TheKoi’s roll menu, but with one difference: Prices are lower at Sushi Ari.
Salmon nigiri ($2.50) was cut with precision, against the grain, and draped over vinegared rice. Surf clam nigiri ($2.50) can be chewy-edged, but delicate knife work feathered the edges, turning it pliable, with a purely oceanic taste.
A yellowtail maki ($7) carried a playful twist on negihama (the tuna and scallion roll) with a wisp of jalapeño tucked inside for snap and spice. A lava roll ($13) was one of the more over-the-top rolls, with cubed tuna sashimi in a sweet-spicy sauce over a tightly wound roll filled with crisp vegetables. Even with all that flavor flair, there was a lot to like about the balance of that roll.
The menu is slowly debuting, and Han expects to add several dishes in the coming weeks, or as many as the restaurant’s small kitchen will allow.
Expect to see a children’s menu debut with options beyond typical kid fare. Han has plans for kid-friendly maki, as well as a kids-eat-free with a paying adult deal.
The restaurant already has added something Trapper’s offered — an all-you-can eat daily sushi deal (offered at sushi bar seating only) for $17.95 at lunch and $27.95 at dinner (which also includes appetizers).
“We’ll have bubble tea soon; the machine has been ordered,” Han said.
Where: 206 39th Ave. SW, Puyallup.
Information: 253-446-2900, facebook.com/sushiaripuyallup.
Hours: Serving lunch and dinner daily. Happy hour is 2-5 p.m.