First Bite

Tasteful Mandu spinoff opens in Mount Vernon Square

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Even when it's playing to a full house, the recently arrived Mandu in Mount Vernon Square fosters the illusion of tranquillity.

Carved wooden ducks in various stages of flight flatter the high walls. Chairs painted a light shade of grass are arranged on floors made from wood scraps that suggest bamboo. Dividing the bar from the main dining room of this spinoff of the Dupont Circle original is an impressive display of handmade memory boxes. Traditionally used by Koreans for stowing keepsakes, the oak containers are stacked seven boxes high above the banquette.

The result is an urban forest of good taste.

Yesoon Lee, who with her family launched the first Mandu in 2006, helms the open kitchen, where she's dispensing many of the same dishes she has served across town, including bibimbap, kimchi soup and mandu, the signature dumplings stuffed with meat, shrimp or vegetables. Is the shaved grilled pork too sweet? Unfortunately, yes. But Lee makes some of the best seafood pancakes around. They're the size of saucers rather than the usual hubcaps and rely on ground seafood rather than chopped. The snacks pack plenty of heat (from jalapenos, which are also minced).

Soaring ceiling aside, the new restaurant is slightly smaller than its sibling, says co-owner Danny Lee, the chef's son, although the younger kitchen is larger, allowing for more choices here in the City Vista building. Among the fresh ideas at Mandu are a vegan-friendly wild black rice tinged green with alfalfa sprouts, sesame leaf and lettuces, everything invigorated with a bean paste spiked with pomegranate vinegar; and a fiery fish soup that Danny Lee calls his favorite dish on the menu.

Cod, clams, tofu, vegetable broth and a habanero paste make an irresistible combination, I agree. Lunch finds salads of flank steak and chicken, concessions to the business crowd that wants to get in and out fast.

Mandu's late-night bar menu stars a hot trend. From 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from 10 p.m. to midnight on Sundays, the kitchen offers Korean-style beef, chicken, pork and tofu tacos.

I'll be setting my alarm clock.

453 K St. NW. 202-289-6899. Entrees, $10 to $24.

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