Unrated during pandemic.
The deja vu is explained by the location, which once housed the beloved, Japanese-inspired Himitsu from chef Kevin Tien. Now it’s Magpie and the Tiger, co-owned by Tien and featuring a Korean script from Caleb Jang. The chef, 29, helped Tien open Himitsu and comes to his first solo gig from Moon Rabbit, Tien’s modern Vietnamese restaurant at the Wharf.
Jang can cook. This is apparent the moment you receive his lightly cured salmon, well-marbled fish gathered with juicy diced Asian pear and brilliant Bordeaux radishes (a.k.a. Korean purple radishes) on a dashi broth stung with kimchi juice. (A splash of lemon juice in the kitchen turns the pool magenta.) As I tucked into the light and elegant first course, Curtis Mayfield sang “Move On Up” — fitting accompaniment to Jang’s résumé.
Like a lot of Koreans, Jang grew up eating sweet potatoes. At Magpie and the Tiger, he doesn’t merely put the vegetable on a pedestal, he also throws it a ticker-tape parade. Hyperbole? Check out the jazzy toppings — pickled Fresno chiles, crispy little onion rings, diced jalapeño — and join the fan club. Baked and fried, to caramelize the skin, the sweet potato is served on a black plate atop a shallow pool of coconut milk, lime juice, brown sugar and ginger syrup. Talk about Seoul food!
No one is slavishly following traditional recipes here. Korea is merely hinted at with the restaurant’s bread course, a cracker-y style of focaccia with a bubbling cheese center. Pastry chef Niko McGuigan stuffs the focaccia di recco with scallions, Camembert and mozzarella. Pretty Italian, right? The nubby slices acquire some Asian flair with a honey-sweetened chile crunch that propels the snack into crowd-pleasing turf.
Perhaps you’d like some salad. Jang obliges with a concert of baby kale, mizuna, cucumber and pleasantly earthy acorn jelly. Honestly, I order the greens as a way to get to the crunchy garnish: sheets of fried nori spread with rice paste. No need for croutons when there’s keem-bugak.
The best pitch for kkanpunggi is a glossy tower of chicken parts, freckled with sesame seeds, being ferried from kitchen to diner. Jang’s nod to the wet-battered, Chinese-Korean fried chicken is cloaked in a sauce that marries sweet with heat, pleasure with pain (hello, bell peppers, garlic and housemade chile oil). If you’re looking to make a case for fusion, make it kkanpunggi.
The other large-format dishes celebrate surf and turf. A nest of chewy wheat noodles showered with ginger and scallions nearly eclipses the sweet, stir-fried lobster it supports. The showstopper is kalbi — an entire beef rib that’s marinated, cooked sous-vide for a day, grilled to add smoke to the pleasure and glazed with a sweeter version of the marinade. Diners are instructed to bundle slices of the heady meat in the accompanying red-leaf lettuce, along with some “umami” rice. The grains are rich and memorable thanks to a soy-cured egg yolk and a pantry’s worth of jump-starters, from soy sauce and ginger to garlic and Korean chile flakes.
McGuigan, 23 and a first-generation Filipino American, has a handful of desserts he’s working on, including a coconut cream puff and a vegan rice pudding. For the moment, though, there’s a single choice. Like the bread, it doesn’t signal Korea. Still, two or more of you should share the Ukrainian-inspired honey cake, seven layers of dulce de leche frosting alternating with eight layers of moist cake, flavored with a ginger-infused honey that’s cooked till it’s almost burned. A monumental slice goes for $9 — money well spent considering the proceeds are donated to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
While the newcomer’s physical dimensions are similar to Himitsu’s (and the restaurant that followed, Pom Pom), a retiled bar, green color scheme and new ceiling and floors give Magpie and the Tiger a distinctive look. The name references Korea’s national bird, a symbol of good fortune, and the belief, stemming from folklore, of the tiger’s protective character.
The servers, who check vaccination status at the door, are lovely. One eagle-eyed attendant, having seen my March birth date on my driver’s license, included a candle and a birthday wish in a to-go container of honey cake.
Between their masks and the clamor in the room, however, attendants can be hard to hear. You might have to repeat any questions, something a lot of patrons have had to adjust to during the pandemic. Harder to understand is the wine list. The average bottle price is $74, which doesn’t exactly say “Howdy, neighbor.” (The restaurant has a liquor license, but cocktails aren’t a current priority, says the chef. “We don’t have a bartender” or space to make drinks.)
Yes, Jang wants to make food that keeps people coming back for more. At the same time, he says he wants to elevate the way workers are treated in his industry: “I want to be part of the change.” The chef practices what he preaches by offering health insurance to full-time staff and four-day workweeks.
Checks are dropped off in cookie tins that remind Jang of the containers legions of practical Korean mothers keep at home. As a kid, the Chicago-area native says he could expect one of two things when he lifted the lid: cookies or sewing items. The chef dusts off the memory at Magpie and the Tiger, where diners find with their bill spools of thread, but also delicate butter cookies to the side. Sweet times two.
Magpie and the Tiger
828 Upshur St. NW. 202-882-2605. magpieandthetiger.com. Open: Indoor dining 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Small plates $12 to $16, large plates $29 to $63. Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The snug entrance and compact dining room are not conducive to wheelchair users. Pandemic protocols: Diners are asked for proof of vaccination and identification at the door; staff are vaccinated and masked.