Standing in the Jade Room, a retro-chic lounge with a glass-walled wine cellar and the air of Japanese minimalism, chef Jeff Tunks instructs his staff on the proper way to serve dolsot bibimbap, one of several Korean-style hot-stone dishes available at the recently resurrected TenPenh in Tysons Corner.
“A lot of people don’t really know how to eat it,” says Tunks, a partner with Passion Food Hospitality, the group behind TenPenh.
The chef stresses the importance of the spicy gochujang sauce — “which is not super spicy,” he quickly adds — and how diners need to squeeze at least half the bottle of the house-made sauce into their stone bowl before mixing the ingredients together. “If they don’t know how to eat it, then they’re going to be picking at the spinach with chopsticks,” he says. “That, on its own, is not that flavorful.”
The dolsot bibimbap is one of many new elements at TenPenh, a restaurant that once held down the corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW in downtown Washington. The address, in fact, provided the inspiration for the restaurant’s vaguely Asian moniker, a mash-up of street names that mirrored TenPenh’s approach to food, a fusion of Asian flavors and familiar Western ingredients, like its miso-glazed sea bass or its Wagyu beef tartare with wasabi guacamole. In its prime in the 2000s — it closed in 2011 — TenPenh was a trailblazer in its ability to synthesize East and West for a (then) generally conservative D.C. dining public.
The new TenPenh is less a revival than a makeover. Tunks and his partners — David Wizenberg and Gus DiMillo — have salvaged precious little from the first incarnation save for the logo, a few dishes and some statuary they acquired in Asia. This time around, TenPenh is placing bets on its chef-driven (and playful) interpretations of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai and Korean dishes that have entered the American mainstream, no matter how tentatively. Think ramen, sushi, dim sum and those Korean hot stone bowls.
In that way, the revamped TenPenh has essentially shifted from Asian fusion to pan-Asian, a distinction perhaps lost on many diners. Yet both approaches seem to swim against the current of contemporary Asian dining. In recent years, chefs and restaurateurs have rejected the mantra of their predecessors who believed that Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian eateries in America needed to pander to the widest possible audience, even if that meant dumbing down the cuisine or asking cooks to have a passing knowledge of an insane number of dishes.
These 21st-century Asian restaurants are hyper-focused on a single regional cuisine or a long-neglected cuisine or even the street foods of a particular country. You see these places popping up across the country, their reservation lists booked solid or a line of hopeful diners snaking down the block. This singled-minded charge into the U.S. dining scene has sometimes been led by white chefs, such as Andy Ricker (whose study of authentic Thai food led to his small Pok Pok chain, first launched in Portland) or Ivan Orkin (whose obsession with Japanese noodle soup led to his iconoclastic Ivan Ramen shops in New York).
But just as often, the modern Asian dining movement has been led by those who grew up with the cuisine and knew (or hoped) the time was right to present it to Americans with authority.
Master chef Peter Chang, the son of a poor farming family in Hubei province, has introduced real Sichuan cooking to the Mid-Atlantic via his eponymous restaurants. The family members behind Xi’an Famous Foods gambled that their Shaanxi cuisine could find an attentive audience in New York City. And the Filipino-American owners behind Bad Saint have created one of the best new restaurants in the country, based on a cuisine previously thought unmarketable in America.
This new wave of Asian eateries has had a ripple effect on those earlier restaurants, such as TenPenh, which adopted a pan-cultural approach to Asian cookery. Jennifer 8. Lee, a former New York Times reporter who has written extensively about the assimilation of Chinese food in America, put it bluntly via text:
“I never trust a pan-Asian restaurant. If I see pad thai and sushi on [the] same menu, I cringe,” she writes. “Pan-Asian is almost by definition not authentic.”
This apparent conflict between old- and new-school Asian restaurants can raise some uncomfortable questions, such as: Who’s qualified to present a region’s cuisine to American diners? And is it okay for outsiders to alter a region’s food because they think it’s too funky for the stereotypical American palate?
“I always look at pan-Asian as sort of being racist,” says David Chang, the Northern Virginia native responsible for the Momofuku empire.
“Think about it this way,” he says. “If I open a barbecue restaurant and I said, ‘This is pan-barbecue, and we’re going to serve barbecue from around the world,’ I would get laughed out of town. No one would take me seriously. But if someone was doing it as Asian food, no one would laugh. No one would think it’s weird.”
Yet Chang is not calling Tunks and his ilk racists. It would be hypocritical: Chang, after all, operates his own pan-Asian restaurants, featuring Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes that are not part of the chef’s Korean heritage. He just doesn’t call them “pan-Asian” or “Asian fusion.”
Both Chang and the Passion Food team know that those terms have become toxic, the victims of chains such as P.F. Chang’s or even your favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant, which have blurred the lines between regional cuisines or between the dishes of vastly different countries without losing sleep over who might be offended.
No, pan-Asian restaurants aren’t dead, despite the rise of such places as Bad Saint, Pok Pok, Ivan Ramen and others. They’re just hiding in plain sight, disguised as noodle houses or new American restaurants, where the chefs may bury their pan-Asian inspirations among a wider variety of culinary influences. Have you noticed how often Asian ingredients and flavors crop up at Rose’s Luxury, that darling of the D.C. dining community?
In this context, TenPenh can come across as the middle-aged dude trying too hard to fit in with the cool kids, who see through this transparent attempt at relevance. They see the Nashville hot chicken steam buns, the bibimbap “arancini” fritters, the pork crackling chips with Thai chili and cucumber chimichurri. But what the kids don’t see — maybe refuse to see — is that TenPenh has much in common with those restaurants that may be better at concealing their pan-Asian inspirations.
They share an emotional connection to Asian cooking. Their chefs have often spent time in the countries that inspired their food, and they frequently have been tutored by older cooks who had to patiently explain the importance of foreign ingredients like gochujang sauce.
Scott Drewno has been tutored by such a chef. After dropping out of college in New York, Drewno moved west and found a job at Chinois, the Las Vegas outpost of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s groundbreaking Santa Monica restaurant, which used French techniques to fuse Asian flavors and California ingredients. The inspiration for Chinois was little more than Puck’s surroundings, the Asian markets and strip-mall eateries that make Los Angeles such an intoxicating food town.
The Asian flavors certainly went to Drewno’s head. In 1996, when he was just 21 years old, this former meat-and-potatoes man fell for Puck’s Shanghai lobster with curry sauce, an elaborate preparation that looked like an expressionist painter’s cry for help.
“So many different ingredients go into making that sauce,” Drewno remembers. “That was certainly a dish that started my love affair with Asian food.”
Two decades and several trips to China later, Drewno leads the kitchen at the Source, Puck’s restaurant in Washington, where diners can sample his refined takes on dishes from Taiwan, Shanghai, Sichuan, Thailand and other locales. It’s pan-Asian fine-dining, though you’d be hard-pressed to find those words in the Source’s marketing materials.
Puck wasn’t the only chef looking East for inspiration. Jean-Georges Vongerichten made a strong first impression on diners and critics in 1992 when he opened Vong, his Frenchified take on Thai cooking in Midtown Manhattan. The late Barbara Tropp, a Chinese scholar at Princeton, would spend two years in Taiwan before moving to San Francisco and opening China Moon Cafe in 1986 in a space that conjured up old-time diners, not Chinese temples. The place became a magnet for celebrities and young cooks; one of Tropp’s apprentices was Lee Hefter, who would become executive corporate chef for Wolfgang Puck — and have a formative influence on a young Drewno.
When David Chang was growing up in Vienna, Va., his father frequently would take him to Pho 75, a beloved Vietnamese chain in the D.C. area. The pho parlor imprinted itself on Chang’s palate: In 2004, when the chef opened his first Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan, he didn’t provide togarashi, the Japanese spice blend often sprinkled into ramen. Instead, he offered Sriracha, the hot sauce found at pho shops everywhere. (Momofuku would later create its own chicken pho, too.)
Momofuku’s opening menu also featured gua bao. They were a last-minute addition based, in part, on Chang’s frequent stops at Oriental Garden in New York’s Chinatown, where the spongy bao were stuffed with duck, scallions, cucumber and hoisin: a Taiwanese variation on Peking duck pancakes. Chang wanted to tuck pork belly into his steamed buns, since he would be producing the fatty meats for his ramen.
“If there’s a claim to fame that I know that I can [make],” Chang says, “there wasn’t a ramen shop in the world that served pork buns with ramen. Anywhere. It was only gyoza or fried rice. So the whole phenomenon of the pork bun really started when we served it with ramen.”
Erik Bruner-Yang knows all about the pork bun phenomenon. The chef behind Maketto (a restaurant that mixes Bruner-Yang’s takes on Taiwanese and Cambodian dishes) remembers when he was still creating the menus at Toki Underground, the popular ramen shop located on the same H Street NE strip in Washington. Toki didn’t offer steamed buns on its opening menu.
“Literally, like, every other customer wanted bao buns, and that’s because David Chang served bao buns at Momofuku,” Bruner-Yang says.
Add up all those stories, and what do you have? A lot of pan-Asian restaurants that draw inspiration from a great many sources, some more random than others. For every dish inspired by research trips to Vietnam or Shanghai, two more were probably inspired by trips to a local strip-center Sichuan joint.
Tunks of Passion Food knows the value of travel in understanding another culture’s food. He has traveled widely throughout Asia. But he and Miles Vaden, the executive chef at TenPenh, also understand the value of calling other chefs, watching YouTube videos and good, old-fashioned recipe testing. They’ve spent countless hours developing a recipe for Peking duck, landing on a painstaking, multiday process that involves shellacking, stuffing, skewering, drying and roasting the birds.
Still, despite the work they’ve invested, Tunks is not certain TenPenh 2.0 will connect with modern D.C. diners. It’s not about the food, which Tunks will put up against the trendiest of pan-Asian haunts. It’s the intangibles: The new TenPenh is suburban, family-friendly, eager to cater to many palates and, with more than 200 seats, very large. Plus, TenPenh doesn’t make customers stand in line.
“That’s what people like,” Tunks says. “They want to wait in line for it a little bit. They want to . . . Snapchat about it, as opposed to making a reservation and coming in.”
If modern diners are attracted to the smaller, more targeted and, well, more difficult-to-attain restaurant, Tunks says he’s not about to reverse course and cater to that market, no matter how trendy it may be. “With two other partners and being at my age,” says the 55-year-old chef, “it’s hard for us to go back to a 35-seat restaurant and do that with a real, more finite focus.”