The Seoul of a New Restaurant
At Mandu, the Korean food could use some assertiveness training
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007
The arrival of Mandu, the new Korean restaurant in Dupont Circle, is appealing on several levels. Foremost, there are only a handful of places in Washington to find bibimbap and bulgogi, the rice-and-vegetable medley and the barbecued beef that, among other dishes in the genre, make Korean food so easy to like.
There's an endearing story behind the business, too. Partner Danny Lee opened Mandu this past fall with a few years of restaurant management under his belt, the goal of serving home-style Korean cooking and the backing of family. His mother, Yesoon Lee, is Mandu's chef and owner. A sister and an uncle also pitch in. While Mandu replaces a rare source for Tibetan food (Mount Everest), the newcomer has made fast friends with its neighbors. Even early in the evening, you can find a packed bar watched over by an enthusiastic bartender and dining rooms that fill up fast. The blue-blazered Danny Lee is an ever-present tour guide, eager to explain the food to those who aren't familiar with it and to introduce his mom between breaks in the action. "I'm so sorry you couldn't order the shrimp dumplings," I overheard her tell a twosome one Sunday lunch, "but we ran out of them last night!" It seems 1,000 dumplings hadn't been enough.
Mandu looks great and feels great. So why am I feeling so neutral as I type this sentence? Because I want Mandu to remind me more of the dozens of dining rooms in Annandale that make up "Koreatown." Not an exact copy, mind you, but certainly more of a flame-thrower. Too much of the food at Mandu makes me think that Mrs. Lee isn't serving the recipes she fed her family but, rather, pulling the punches some of us relish when we're eating Korean food in all its robust glory.
That might be okay if you've never tried Korean cuisine or you've got a delicate palate. I took a couple of friends who hadn't sampled the cooking before, and they were eager to return. But anyone with experience eating in Annandale -- I invited that demographic, too -- is apt to be disappointed in the restraint displayed at Mandu. Consider the panchan, typically a flurry of gratis salads and other little dishes that kick off a Korean meal and sometimes number 10 or more. Mandu serves no more than four, and they're repetitious: sliced cucumber speckled with red chilies; green beans seasoned pretty much the same way; batons of sweet, tofu-textured fish cake; and a bowl of kimchee, the ubiquitous fermented cabbage laced with chilies. Elsewhere, the panchan is a symphony of flavor, texture and color; here, it amounts to a few similar notes.
Mandu takes its name from the Korean word for dumplings, which are offered three ways here: filled with meat, shrimp or vegetables. The thin wrappers clue you in to what they're hiding. A topknot means shrimp inside. Green-tinted packaging means chopped vegetables await. Mere crimps in the casing indicate a combination of beef and pork. With your eyes shut, however, it would be tricky to discern which dumpling was which; all of them are pretty wan. A dip in the accompanying soy-sesame seed sauce gives each morsel a lift, but you can't help but wish for more flavor from the mandu themselves. Other dishes sound a familiar refrain. A first course of sliced zucchini comes with a light egg batter. The pan-fried snack is not so tasty you want to finish it. A wedge of bean curd sheathed in egg and garnished with threads of seaweed is better, reminiscent of a room-temperature omelet.
There are two dishes on the menu that will keep me returning. One is Mrs. Lee's take on the ubiquitous seafood pancake, which in my experience has been a white, hubcap-size round dotted with rings of squid and pink shrimp in the batter. The version at Mandu is saucer-size and made with buckwheat flour. And instead of whole pieces of seafood, the squid, mussels and shrimp are ground before being mixed into the batter. I love the slightly nutty flavor of the pancakes, as well as the jalapeño heat that pulses through each bite (and is intensified with the accompanying sauce spiked with ginger juice). The starter features two pancakes, making it easy to share, even if you're not so inclined.
Another reason I'll be back is the bibimbap. For an extra $2, you can eat it from a big stone bowl, and my suggestion is to splurge. The entree comes to the table crackling and popping -- the sounds of warm rice sizzling against the sides of a hot showboat. Arranged on the surface of the rice are julienned carrot, sliced mushrooms, slivers of beef and a sunny yellow egg. Before eating, a diner is supposed to gently blend the ingredients, along with zippy red bean paste, to taste, although nobody told us that when we ordered the dish.
Beyond that, there are several dishes on the small menu that fall into the category of perfectly pleasant. One is kimchee soup fleshed out with beef shreds and tofu cubes in a brick-colored broth that is hot but not incendiary. Another is kalbi, meaty short ribs sweetly seasoned with ground onions, soy sauce and garlic (but bedded on dull zucchini). A heap of chicken pieces, speckled with red chilies and enveloped in steam, sputters like fajitas as the dish makes its way from kitchen to table. But the entree, rounded out with bell peppers, onions and carrots, is more about flash than flavor.
Mount Everest was one of those restaurants you walked by and forgot about. Mandu commands one's attention with a handsome awning and big windows framing diners inside. The restaurant is staged across three dining areas on two levels, the upstairs area being the more attractive of the choices. Easy on the eyes, the walls are painted a soft yellow and graced with Korean prints. Less endearing is the noise level; Mandu's bare surfaces result in a clattery meal.
Lee has recruited and trained bright personalities to take orders and deliver food. "How's the yook ge jang?" is followed by a detailed explanation of the thick beef soup by someone who knows what he's talking about. Unfortunately, the food comes out so fast, and sometimes with entrees trailing appetizers by mere minutes, that you're tempted to slip the staff Valium. Slow down, kids! This isn't a race; it's a meal. Some of us don't need to be in and out in 15 minutes.
Besides, there are reasons to linger. From the bar come fruity riffs on martinis -- "sojutinis," so named for the clear and potent Korean drink that brings to mind vodka, only sweeter. The cocktails come in a bushel of flavors, the most refreshing and elegant of which are pineapple and peach. The grape-flavored sojutini tastes as if Welch's had a hand in its conception, though, and the orange drink has too much in common with DayQuil.
Sweets do not play a big role at the Korean table, which explains why Mandu offers only two desserts, a bowl of fruit and green tea ice cream. Both make for light finishes.
I recently met a guy who always orders the same thing at the several restaurants where he calls himself a regular. "Gosh, I could never do that," I responded. Professionally, I need to try everything; personally, I like variety. "Yeah," he said, "but I'm never disappointed." Then I consider Mandu, where I've never gone wrong with seafood pancakes and bibimbap, and I nod in understanding.