One of the biggest restaurant debuts of the summer is almost here: Anju opens for dinner in Dupont Circle on Monday, August 26th. The ambitious Korean restaurant is the first full-service venture from the team behind popular “fine-casual” Chiko and the Lee family, who operated Mandu in the same location for over a decade before a fire gutted the restaurant in 2017. Washingtonian got a first look at the menu (see below), which blends traditional Korean techniques and ingredients with cheffy innovations.
“This is the light at the end of the tunnel. This has been a long, stressful, emotional project, especially for our family,” says chef and co-owner Danny Lee, who was literally putting out fires at Mandu the day Chiko’s flagship opened on Barracks Row two years ago. “It’s definitely a passion project.”
Left: chef/co-owner Danny Lee of Chiko and Anju. Right: Anju executive chef Angel Barreto.
And one that’s involved the whole restaurant family. Yesoon “Mama” Lee, who cooks at the remaining Mandu in Mount Vernon Triangle, spent time working with Anju executive chef Angel Barreto honing classic techniques and homestyle dishes (Barreto first worked with Chiko chef/partner Scott Drewno at The Source and has been with Chiko ever since). While most of the menu will have a modern bent, a section of “Mama Lee’s classics” is filled with items like stone bowl bibimbap and kimchi jigae, twice-cooked pork belly with soft tofu and aged kimchee. If you’re a fan of ferments, ask for an off-menu kimchee flight, which includes an extra-funky one that’s been aged for 100 days.
Meanwhile Danny Lee’s wife, Natalie Park, is behind the homey, plant-filled space. The interior blends salvaged original fixtures like wood floors alongside new touches like an airy second-floor “garden room” and an open kitchen flanked by a ferment/kimchee fridge, a panchan station, and four dining seats.
Patrons can approach Anju in a variety of ways—and price points, from happy hour Hiite beers and kimchee slaw dogs to nightly tasting menus served around a jeongol (Korean hot-pot) table upstairs. The latter is the most upscale approach: an evening for six-to-eight guests that begins with 10-odd panchan (small cold vegetable dishes) followed by appetizers like Korean beef tartare or a whole fried chicken with dipping sauces. Guests can pick between vegetarian, seafood, poultry, or beef variations for the main casserole; the kitchen will rotate proteins and preparations, such as a bourguignon-like beef braise or cornish hens stuffed with sweet rice, dates, garlic, and ginseng.
Diners might be accustomed to free panchan from Korean barbecue restaurants, but the little dishes will go for $3 to $5 on the a la carte menu—a price that reflects the preparation time and seasonal ingredients like local radishes or bellflower root (a saline flower that’s only grown on hillsides by the ocean in Korea). Diners can match them with a la carte appetizers and entrees such as mandu dumplings, crispy charred kimchee pancakes, chewy noodles with roasted shellfish in seafood broth, or a rotating ssam board with cuts of grilled meat or fish. To start, look for thick-cut galbi short ribs served with fresh herbs, lettuce, and rice for wrapping, and sweet potato buns for stuffing.
Anju is the Korean term for food meant to be consumed with alcohol—so yes, the bar program is robust. Beverage director Phil Anova channels the communal nature of Korean drinking culture with large-format cocktails such as teapots filled with soju and fresh fruits. There’s also somaek, a beer cocktail that Anova fashions into a shandy with citrus-infused soju. The bar will have plenty of Korean beers, global wines, and—a first for DC—makkoli (sparkling rice wine) on tap. While the full a la carte menu is offered throughout the place, a lineup of bar snacks will only be available on the first floor and will extend to 12:30 AM on weekdays and 1:30 AM on weekends.
The team bandied about other ways to describe their restaurant.
“We’ve put out ‘modern Korean,’ we’ve put out ‘progressive.’ But for us it’s just a Korean restaurant,” Danny Lee says. “Because Korean food is still fairly new in mainstream America, people still view it as one thing: a grungy, garage-style restaurant with barbecue grills. And anytime you do something different, like with Mandu in 2006, people call it Americanized or fusion. Nope, it’s a Korean restaurant.”
Anju will host a pre-opening cocktail party on Sunday, August 25th from 5 to 8 PM with food and drink stations throughout the restaurant. Tickets ($50 all-inclusive) will be available for 100 guests on Resy starting Wednesday at 5 pM.
Anju. 1805 18th St., NW