On July 4, 2017, Danny Lee took a slug of NyQuil around 7 pm and called it a night. He needed to get some real sleep—his new restaurant, Chiko, was opening the next day in Capitol Hill. But in the middle of the night, his phone began ringing so much he thought he was hallucinating. He finally picked it up. “Hey, your restaurant’s on fire,” said the friend on the other end, as Lee’s first place, the Dupont Circle Korean spot Mandu, burned in an electrical blaze.
All this might sound like a mediocre film-writing-class plot twist, but for Lee it was real life. The next day, while he was prepping in the kitchen for the first dinner at the fast-casual Chiko, he fielded calls from his insurance company. They needed to know—right away—if he intended to shut down the 11-year-old Mandu or rebuild it. Lee stepped away from his cutting board and gathered his partners—chef Scott Drewno and finance guy Andrew Kim. Did they want to go in on another place? Without hesitation, they answered yes.
That restaurant, Anju (translation from Korean: food consumed while drinking), opened in August. It was worth the wait. The team—which includes executive chef Angel Barreto—has created a boundary-pushing, kaleidoscopic tour through Korean cuisine. We’ve still got time left in 2019, but if there’s a restaurant of the year, this is it.
If you’ve been to the mega-successful Chiko, where Korean and Chinese flavors coexist but rarely mingle, you know that the Drewno/Lee/Barreto triumvirate doesn’t punch lightly when it comes to flavor. Spiky, acidic, fiery, unctuous—they’re all there, often in the same bowl. At Anju, the group—with help from Lee’s mother, Yesoon—focuses solely on Korea.
Yesoon, who grew up in Seoul, verges on ancestor worship for the centuries-old traditions involved in making kimchee and more esoteric ferments such as shredded bellflower root. (A good rule of thumb here: If you’ve never heard of it, order it.)
“She likes innovation, but she’s very much a classic Korean cook,” Danny Lee says of his mother. “Scott says we should have our own TV show. When she and I get arguing about a dish, everyone just turns away.”
Maybe that’s why the elder Lee has her own area of the menu devoted to homey braises and standards such as bibim bap. That section doesn’t include the tornado potato you’ll see sailing through the plant-filled, bi-level dining room. The skewer, which holds an entire spiralized and fried potato doused in citrus aïoli and sprinkled with furikake, is a street snack turned attention-stealer. A quieter presence, though just as pleasurable, is a pair of steamy split potatoes stuffed with sesame-honey butter.
A risotto-like porridge with mushrooms and pecorino fell a little flat, but sign me up for more of the steamed dumplings stuffed with a buttery pork blend, the lacy kimchee pancake, and the beef tartare tossed with frozen cubes of Asian pear and hot mustard.
The fried chicken is available by the half or whole bird. No matter how much else you get, spring for the bigger version and box it up. Drewno and Lee came up with the recipe after a frigid night in Busan, where they noticed a famous chicken stand in an outdoor market using a wet batter, not the potato starch more typical of Korean fried chicken.
When they returned, they got to experimenting. Barreto freestyled by throwing earthy roasted soybean powder into the mix. The result is chicken with a symphonic crunch, evident when you eat it hot off the plate or hours later from the fridge. The pieces are sheened with a lip-tingling gochujang glaze and striped with tangy Alabama-style white barbecue sauce.
The team plans to rotate the meats on their ssam board—a palette-like assembly for DIY lettuce wraps. The version with juicygalbi (short rib) is fabulous. You can do it up with spoonfuls of rice and creamy roasted garlic cloves, then dunk each bundle in sesame oil. Use Bibb lettuce as the wrap or, even better, a sheet of sweetly pickled radish.
Among the fish dishes, I fell hardest for the crisp-skinned branzino covered with chilies, cilantro, and fennel and the peppery fried rice tossed with wok-caramelized squid, shrimp, and scallops. The kitchen’s very good take on Chinese/Korean jjamppong—wok-roasted seafood tossed with slightly charred noodles—gets its pop from one of the many house-made spice blends.
Anju stays open well into the night and, true to its name, has an already-rollicking happy hour featuring kimchee-laden hot dogs and ramen fortified by shavings of brisket. Order a $4 bowl of makkoli, a fizzy rice wine that the bar infuses with various flavors—I loved the strawberry/toasted-coconut—and snag a seat at the chef’s counter.
Looking back at the last couple of years, Lee says he’s still processing all that emotion. But amid his “nervous breakdown”–level stress on Anju’s opening day, he took a break and sat outside. His mom came up and put her arm around him. “This is special,” she said. “Appreciate it. We’re about to have guests back in our house for the first time in two years.”
1805 18th St., NW; 202-845-8935
Open daily for dinner and late-night menu (until 1 am Sunday through Thursday, 2 am Friday and Saturday).
Neighborhood: Technically Dupont Circle but on the fringe of Adams Morgan.
Dress: Everything from jorts to flowy Instagram dresses.
Noise level: Pretty loud—you’ll have to lean in—when it’s crowded, which is often.
Accessibility: Very limited. The downstairs space is tight, and there’s a long staircase to the second level.
Best Dishes: Tornado potato; Korean sweet potatoes; mandu; kimchee pancake; beef tartare; fried chicken; ssam board; branzino; fried rice; jjamppong; kimchee dog; makkoli.
Price range: Starters $8 to $15, large plates $17 to $32.
This article appears in the November 2019 issue of Washingtonian.