The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
If any chef can get you to eat your offal, it’s Tim Ma, whose warm salad of chicken heart, tendon and tripe tossed in chili-tamarind dressing makes for a funky organ recital. Not into innards? Not a problem. Ma offers a host of dishes — chicken wings, sea bass tartare — that turn the common into uncommonly delicious eating. My current pick is veal short rib jolted with Fresno peppers and garnished with fried shallots, a small plate with a big future. A sense of quirkiness prevails. A book at the bar encourages patrons to draw their thanks, and the dining room is as angular as a portrait by Picasso. Homesick New Orleanians, take note: The bar makes a mean Sazerac.
2 1/2 stars
Kyirisan: 1924 Eighth St. NW. 202-525-2383. kyirisandc.com .
Prices: Small-to-medium plates $9-$22.
Sound check: 77 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published July 6, 2016.
Kyirisan review: Tastefully pushing boundaries in Shaw
Talk to Tim Ma about the differences between opening a restaurant in Virginia, where the chef has launched three establishments since 2009, and the District, where Ma introduced Kyirisan in March, and he’s likely to tell you that Washingtonians tend to eat later and more adventurously.
Not until his latest restaurant, an expression of his Chinese heritage and French training in Shaw, did the chef feel confident about putting on his menu what Ma calls a “passion dish,” or something that might not enjoy mass appeal but that nevertheless captures the attention of the cook.
Need an example? Here, try some of my offal salad. There’s plenty to go around given that my tablemates tonight aren’t biting; the words “tendon,” “tripe” and “chicken heart” are being met by eye rolls. My guests — Washingtonians who don’t conform to Ma’s profile — don’t know what they’re missing. The sliced braised tendon, soft webbed tripe and dense cubed heart arrive atop a salad of onion, tomatoes and Thai basil that, together with a tamarind vinaigrette, provide the perfect foil to the pleasantly funky flavors of the organ meats.
(Not every passion play endures. Consider one night’s Silkie chicken, a breed known for its black skin, which Ma presented in parts, black head and claws included. While the exotica, obtained from a Chinese grocery store, sold out, the bird probably won’t be back anytime soon, says Ma, at least not in its original form. Turns out diners are cool with the color, less so the display.)
Lest you think of the arrival of Kyirisan (say KYR-ih-sahn) as a freak show, rest assured, there are sufficient choices to appease conservative appetites. Still, the drill might be annoying to those of us who spend a lot of our life in restaurants.
I’m referring to servers compelled to “explain” the menu, which almost always signals a menu that needs tweaking. Like too many other restaurants, this one involves “small plates served family style” (stop the madness!) and cute categories — In the Ground, On the Ground and Under the Water — whose dishes get progressively heavier as you read from top to bottom. Call me a dinosaur, but I sometimes pine for the days when things called appetizers came ahead of things called main courses and you could be assured the former would be smaller than the latter — and no one had to share either if they didn’t feel like it.
A tip sheet for Kyirisan would definitely begin with some chicken wings. Yeah, yeah, they’re not just for bars anymore and everyone is making them. Ma distinguishes his pile from the flock by draping his wings in a burnt-orange sauce that gets its smoothness from creme fraiche and its umami from … well, just about any fermented or assertive enhancer within Ma’s reach, including oyster sauce; the acidic Japanese citrus called sudachi; and gochujang, the pungent Korean condiment made with chili paste, rice and soybeans. Deep-fried tofu spackled with egg whites makes another good entry point. I’ve watched more than one skeptic polish off a bowl of the cubed bites, their centers as fluffy as marshmallows and the pleasure bolstered by scallion spears, zingy carrot curls and a moat of cilantro-charmed black pepper sauce. “This,” says a companion, “makes me like tofu.” Having also taken my posse’s order for hanger steak, the server encourages us to save the remaining sauce for the beef. Lush by itself and cut into thick slices, the brined steak becomes a different temptation when splashed with that garlicky pepper sauce. A salad of shaved carrots suggests the vegetable is the new kale (and not a moment too soon).
On another fashion note, chefs everywhere have begun leaving lots of blank space around their creations, by which I mean the duck confit at Kyirisan sits at the far edge of its big blue platter. Served as a loose stack, the rich shredded meat is layered with caramelized Brussels sprouts and slices of griddled blood orange, then finished with fine glossy rings of apple cider gastrique. If you tackle the construction right, you get a little of each flavor in every bite. A tad wintry for summer? Sure, but the idea is also plenty pleasing.
The hotter the day, the more I find myself thinking about Ma’s refreshing sea bass tartare. It arrives as a thick white stripe of minced fish, fennel and celery, everything enriched with aioli but also excited by vinegar. The texture of the dish mimics tapioca; orange segments and radish coins add shade to the hedge, which occupies (here we go again!) only half its large white plate.
The interior, refreshingly free of reclaimed wood but not sonic booms, has a unique point of view. It’s all angles at Kyirisan, where brass triangles jut from the walls, the ceiling could pass for a giant children’s chatterbox and even some of the plates are neither round nor square but somewhere in between. The engaging visuals extend to the clientele. Look up from your seared scallops bedded on coconut-milk-infused rice and you might find yourself sharing the dining room with a perky TV anchor or the French ambassador, everyone sharing food tips while the Jackson 5 sing “ABC.” Return to your seafood and appreciate how the scoop of basil ice cream melts into the warm rice, flattering the whole.
If you don’t get the custardy cheesecake with hazelnut ganache for dessert, splurge on the deconstructed Black Forest cake with chocolate genoise.
Ma, who shares ownership with his wife, Joey, signed on to the location over two years ago, when the building Kyirisan occupies was a mere hole in the ground (and after the restaurateurs passed on the spot where the Dabney now serves the flavors of the Mid-Atlantic.) Originally, Kyirisan was to be called Freehand, a choice disputed by a chain of hostels claiming dibs on the brand. Ma’s replacement derives from the Chinese name for his three children’s generation and the phonetic spellings of the Chinese words for one, two and three.
When it opened, Kyirisan accepted reservations only for the day a diner called. Recently, and wisely, the policy has changed to allow diners to book up to a week ahead. Three cheers for the switch; Washingtonians like to plan ahead.
Some of us also prefer not to read lips. Chef, can you now do something about the cacophony? Your cooking deserves contemplation, not competition.