You’re a very disciplined eater,” a restaurateur once told me. “You only have a few bites of your dishes.”
I remember telling him I eat out as many as a dozen meals a week, that if I scraped my plate clean every breakfast, lunch and dinner away from home, I’d have to start buying tents instead of suits. What I didn’t reveal at the time is a trade secret, about to be exposed: by leaving food on a plate, a critic doesn’t show his hand. Uneaten dishes keep chefs guessing until a review appears.
Honestly, though, I’m not all that restrained around food. Put a pound bag of peanut M&M’s in front of me and watch me whittle it to fun size in no time. If something is exceptional in a restaurant — bastilla from Sababa, pasta from Centrolina, anything from Little Serow — I’ll at least take remains home for later enjoyment. Other times, I ignore professional impulses and inhale what’s in front of me, a scene played out most recently at Anju, the terrific new Korean restaurant from the owners of the popular Chiko.
There I was, perched at a stool in the knee-to-knee bar, maneuvering my silver chopsticks as if I had just been told the spread on the ledge was my last meal. Come to think of it, the juicy steamed dumplings, plumped with ground pork yet surprisingly light, and the kimchi pancake — thinner than most, crisp throughout and red with kimchi brine — would make a divine send-off.
So, too, would the salad displayed in a metal box, a nod to the way Korean parents send school lunches off with their children. A server lets us imagine the scenario by presenting a tin of beautiful, carefully arranged ingredients — in this case, cubed squash, buttery avocado, crisp walnuts and tender lettuce — then covering the garden with a lid and vigorously shaking the box, jostling it as a kid would en route to classes. The top is removed to reveal a fine mess, sparkling with citrusy yuzu vinaigrette. By comparison, other tossed salads seem static.
Is it possible Anju has gotten even better since it opened in August on the site of Mandu, the Korean restaurant ravaged by a fire three years ago? Yes, it is. The cast of characters behind the successor includes chefs Danny Lee and Scott Drewno, partners with Drew Kim in the Fried Rice Collective; Yesoon Lee, Danny’s mother and co-creator of the Mandu brand; and chef de cuisine Angel Barreto, late of Chiko and previously of the Source restaurant under Drewno. Each of the principals brings something important to the table, and if I had to guess, Barreto, 30, whose lifelong passion for Korean food was nurtured by his Army parents, is most excited by the project. He certainly works hard. He makes 1,000 pounds of kimchi a week, giving each leaf of napa cabbage its own paint job, using a paste pulled together from Korean radish (mu), garlic, ginger, scallions and brined shrimp, which jump-start the fermentation process.
Above all, Barreto wants to show the breadth of Korean cuisine, its lightness as well as its rich palette. He and his superiors aren’t afraid to adjust a few classics, either. The mushroom porridge known as juk, based on an umami-rich vegetable stock, could almost pass for an Italian dish, given its texture (akin to risotto) and its reinforcements (shaved pecorino and cherry tomatoes in addition to chile oil). Even humble tubers get the star treatment. Korean sweet potatoes are rubbed with sesame oil, roasted in a 500-degree oven until their skins blister, then split and plied with honey butter, fresh mint and basil, and a foam spun from whipped cream and sesame oil. Seoul food fans might recognize the appetizer’s nod to the omnipresent honey butter chips sold abroad. But it doesn’t take a trip to Korea to appreciate the bliss behind the dish, designed as a play on the all-American steakhouse potato crowned with sour cream.
Neighbors at the next table ask about the big bowl a companion and I are destroying. Anju’s amber fried chicken is enjoying TikTok-like attention, and justifiably so. The chefs dredge the pieces in a batter made with roasted soybean powder, then double fry them for shattering effect. It gets better: Liquid curtains of sweet-spicy gochujang and Alabama-style white barbecue sauce dress the chicken. (I told you the kitchen likes to mix things up.) An even bigger showoff on the menu is a furikake-seasoned “tornado” potato, a spiralized spud strung out on a skewer and finished with citrus aioli. Picture a Slinky on your plate, dip clinging to chips, a marvelous mess. Nothing subliminal here. To see it is to need it.
The larger dishes include gently fried branzino served atop thick rounds of broth-swollen Korean radish and a spectacular ssam board: slices of kalbi (short rib) surrounded by sliced Asian pear, garlic chips, magenta pickled radishes, a bowl of steamed white rice and garlic roasted until it’s soft as butter. Take a sliver of marinated beef and whatever else on the platter you like and bundle it inside a lettuce leaf (ssam is Korean for “wrapped”). Looking at the vibrant spread makes your mouth water; sinking your teeth into a crisp-soft, bright-dark, sweet and beefy wrap makes you giddy.
Barreto is fascinated by kimchi, and you will be too after comparing the difference between his 30-day ferment and one aged 100 days. The latter — so popular it’s no longer printed on the menu, only mentioned at the table — packs a punch that combines tang, heat and a hint of fruitiness. Experiments with other than cabbage have been rousing successes. Shredded Brussels sprouts and honeycrisp apples are by turns refreshing and racy; shiitake mushrooms and shredded collards left to ferment for 140 days yield a kimchi that takes on the texture of meat — crossed with fire.
Not every selection needs to do somersaults to win your favor. The dishes created by Yesoon Lee, offered at the original Mandu, take diners into her home kitchen. If you want to eat as Danny Lee did as a boy, ask for Anju’s colorful bibimbap or lightly sweet chicken and potatoes. (First impression: The kid was loved.) Mama Lee is also responsible for sharing the technique for one of the prized panchan on the menu, a little salad of shredded sauteed bellflower root. Crunchy and meaty, it comes from the bitter root of a plant that grows on the seaside hills in southern Korea and is made palatable by a soak in water and a rub of salt.
Designed by Natalie Park, Danny’s wife, every room has its charms. The bar and tall tables in front of the open kitchen make great pitstops for a bite and a sip. (By your lonesome? Let the Korean soap operas keep you company.) Upstairs are slightly more formal dining areas, beneficiaries of white brick, skylights, live plants and scarred walls. “We wanted it to feel cozy,” like Mandu before it, but also timeless, says Park. The artwork includes a floral painting by Lee’s aunt.
In Korean, Anju refers to food eaten with alcohol, foremost soju, the clear, low-alcohol spirit considered to be Korea’s national drink and the base of multiple drinks at Anju. One creation, Soju Bourbon, suggests a brown spirit is involved. In reality, charred oak and vanilla bean flavor the choice cocktail.
Some servers are more attentive than others here, and the food comes out so fast, it’s as if Domino’s trained the staff. But those are minor issues given the major pleasures. If you’re anything like me, you’ll eat Anju up.
Anju (Excellent) 1805 18th St. NW. 202-845-8935. anjurestaurant.com. Open: Dinner daily. Prices: Appetizers $10 to $15, entrees and share plates $17 to $32. Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The restaurant keeps a collapsible ramp at the host stand for navigating the big step at the door. About 10 seats on the ground floor are wheelchair-accessible, as is a restroom. Stairs prohibit access to the second floor.