Bundles of comfort at the latest Mandu
Mount Vernon Triangle is its second locale
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Springsteen is singing to me, some ducks are flying by, and I've got a big bowl of glassy noodles tossed with bits of grilled beef and wisps of spinach keeping me company.
Mandu, the latest restaurant to settle into Mount Vernon Triangle, knows how to make a diner feel good.
Ring familiar? The original Mandu opened five years ago in Dupont Circle. Like the first, the spinoff is family-owned and adopts the Korean word for dumpling as its name.
I fell for the new, slightly smaller spot at first glance, even before I took a bite of the menu. Those ducks are wooden, by the way, but the pale green carvings in different stages of flight animate the walls they grace. And separating the low-ceilinged bar from the dining room is one of the most artful dividers around: a wall built from handcrafted oak memory boxes. Where a few containers have been left out, "windows" and a peek of the bar scene are the result. The young servers, meanwhile, act like hosts at a good block party, and if there's a pause in the action, chef and co-owner Yesoon Lee might stop by your table for a chat.
Take a cue from the name of the place, and request dumplings. They come in three styles - shrimp, meat and vegetable - each in a unique wrapper. Order a sampler, and you can compare the hat shape stuffed with seafood to the pale green half-moon without meat to the crimped dumpling filled with juicy ground beef and pork. Go during happy hour, 4 to 7 p.m. daily, and try six for $3.
The super-sticky chicken wings at Mandu leave white napkins orange and recipients hungry for another flock. The appetizers, which incorporate pureed Asian pear in their coating, are hot and glossy and tangy with vinegar. Just as riveting - but less apt to prompt a request for club soda - are cool rice-flour crepes wrapped around threads of rib-eye, zucchini and cooked egg. The neat little roll-ups come four per plate with a mustard sauce that ups the action for the taste buds. Lee also turns out a fine seafood pancake, freckled green with scallions and (gotcha!) jalapeos.
There are some underperformers among the opening acts. Fried eggplant is shiny with oil and not much fun to eat. A sail of threaded flank steak brushed with a sweet wash of soy sauce, garlic and wine takes some jaw power to tackle.
The gratis snacks that traditionally accompany a Korean meal - panchan - change from visit to visit at Mandu, but the assortment generally finds chopped cucumber, kimchi (chili-ignited fermented cabbage) and soft squares of custardy tofu. Cameo appearances might be made by matchsticks of burdock root, sliced lotus root, mung beans or (my favorite) sweet and chewy ground-fish cakes. Grazing among the compartments on the plate of panchan, diners are treated to the symphony of sour, sweet, salty, nutty and spicy notes that make this cuisine so compelling.
Mandu makes it possible for the carnivore and his opposite to break bread together (and enjoy the occasion). Meat can be omitted from a number of the dishes, including bibimbop, the appealing kitchen sink built on rice.
One of the most comforting dishes in the Korean repertoire is the previously introduced bowl of thin, gray (gluten-free) noodles made from sweet potatoes and tossed with stir-fried beef and vegetables. Known as chap chae and flavored with sesame oil, the mound is dressed up with thin yellow strips of egg. Moving up the spice scale is a scallion-sprinkled bowl of tender chicken thighs and potatoes, red from a cloak of Korean peppers and wine. Racier yet is the cold-weather favorite of co-owner Danny Lee, the chef's son: a bubbling stew of clams, cod and tofu that gets its punch from habanero.
For the most part, however, this is not food that begs for a fire extinguisher when you order something described as spicy. Looking as if it should taste like molten lava, a brick-colored mass of shredded beef with egg and bean sprouts sears rather than torches the tongue. The kitchen tends to emphasize sweetness over heat. Koreans have an expression for explosive spiciness that loosely translates into English as "deliciously burning hot." No true hothead is likely to utter those words at Mandu.
Anyone tired of traditional brunches should add Mandu (1 and 2) to the list of alternatives. For $12, takers get chive pancakes, hash browns that suggest shoestring fries streaked with carrots, a many-layered omelet, and a choice of marinated pork, beef, chicken or tofu: "Our spin on steak and eggs," says Danny Lee.