Anju brings Korean flavors to life in the District

The thoughtful, flavorful Korean pub rose from the ashes of Mandu. Here’s our full review.

korean food on table
Order all of the panchan, little plates of assorted pickled, funky vegetables. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

City dwellers have long been treated to the marvelous cooking of Scott Drewno, who helmed the kitchen at Wolfgang Puck’s The Source for a decade, and Danny Lee, who built a mini Korean restaurant empire cooking alongside his mom, Yesoon Lee,—affectionately known around town as Mama Lee—at their popular Mandu Restaurants.

Drewno and Lee struck out on their own two summers ago, partnering with Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin co-founder Drew Kim to form Fried Rice Collective and open Chiko, an innovative way of marrying the ease of fast-casual with the technique of fine dining. Masterfully comforting dishes like chopped brisket with a soy-brined egg over rice enhanced with furikake butter became an instant classic, and Chiko locations are regularly slammed with those who appreciate bold, high-end dishes served quickly at a reasonable price.

But before the first Chiko opened its doors, the original Mandu in eastern Dupont Circle caught fire and closed. FRC kept the building, revived the name of a late-night pop-up Lee and Drewno used to host at Mandu several years ago, tapped Drewno’s former kitchen colleague Angel Barreto to serve as executive chef (he lived in Korea as a child and has chased those flavors ever since) and reopened as a chic Korean gastropub. The resulting Anju debuted late this summer, two years after the fire.

This post originally appeared in our December 2019 issue. For more Food content, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

So, why drive all the way into DC for Korean food when Annandale might be right around the corner? Because, like FRC’s other endeavors, Anju is no ordinary Korean restaurant. Take the gyeran jjim, for instance—usually a steamed, puffy egg dish. Here, it resembles more of a silky, custardy Japanese chawanmushi. Whether that’s good or bad is personal preference. Some might say, “Why mess with a classic?” Others might think, “If I wanted an authentic gyeran jjim, I’d head to the closest strip mall.”

fried potato on skewer
Twister: The fried potato rockets to glory in this stunning tornado-on-a-stick. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

If the latter sounds more like you, head to Anju and follow the rich aromas discernable from the sidewalk. There you’ll find an array of tasty panchan, such as gingery cucumbers, pleasantly sticky soy-marinated lotus root, pickled radishes evoking whispers of honey and flowers, and a seasonal kimchi made with Brussels sprouts and apples.

The bartender reveals the tornado potato starter is wildly popular—and while the spiralized, fried potato on a stick sounds like something inspired by the Minnesota State Fair, it’s actually a popular Korean street snack. Served here with dollops of citrus aioli, a sprinkle of furikake and a cap of chopped green onion, it’s the perfect start if you plan to indulge in a few cocktails (or the house-infused makgeolli, aka makkoli, a cloudy Korean rice wine) as is the delightfully messy kimchi-slaw dog found on the bar menu.

Another star comes in the plate of lightly fried, super-moist branzino, its broth redolent of fish sauce, garlic, soy, ginger and a nutty Korean sesame seed called perilla. It’s all garnished with fresh chiles, mint and fennel. There are so many exciting flavors happening that you’ll likely be very disappointed the next time you order branzino in the simple Mediterranean style it’s normally prepared. And if someone in your party is really jonesing for traditional Korean dishes, direct them toward Mama Lee’s classics, a short roster of bibimbap, dak jjim and kimchi jjigae.

The adorable ganache-filled, fish-shaped waffle served with a peanut butter mousse is a must-try dessert for chocoholics. But no matter what you order, it’ll be worth the drive.

Notes

Don’t-Miss
The tornado potato; branzino with braised Korean radish; panchan—especially pickled cucumbers, sweet lotus root and seasonal kimchi

Scene
Downstairs has the feel of a buzzy and inviting bar with its communal high tops, backless stools, open kitchen and window nooks with seats. Upstairs, mustard-hued banquettes mingle with exposed brick and warm woods for a more serene experience. // Anju Restaurant: 1805 18th St. NW, Washington, DC


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