Anju, a modern Korean restaurant near Dupont Circle, is only two years old but has already garnered local buzz for its well-executed gourmet food served in a casual environment.
Anju shares owners with other modern Asian restaurants in D.C. like Chiko and I Egg You in a restaurant group called The Fried Rice Collective. The two-story building that Anju occupies at 1805 18th St. NW previously housed Mandu, which was ruined by a fire in 2017. But, Mandu’s head chef and owner Danny Lee renovated the space and opened Anju during the summer of 2019.
Having dinner at Anju feels more like attending a dinner party at your friend’s stylish home than sitting down in a gourmet restaurant. There’s not a table cloth in sight and the exposed brick walls throughout the restaurant look like they’re straight from a brownstone townhouse.
Anju’s wooden ceiling detailing, floors, tables and chairs are varying shades of brown, bringing a dark and intimate color scheme to the space. And the minimal decor consists of house plants and small framed paintings which pepper the space’s walls.
But as dishes arrive at your table, carefully presented in shining metal bowls, you’ll be immersed in an upscale dining experience that excites your taste buds.
Looking at Anju’s menu, names of classic Korean dishes like juk, jjamppong and bibimbap stand out, but departures from traditional ingredients set the dishes apart as modern interpretations of already reliably tasty recipes. Anju’s juk ($11), for example, leaves out chicken and adds wok roasted corn, garlic chips, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese to what would usually be a simple chicken and rice porridge.
There is a section of the menu dedicated to “Mama Lee’s classics,” which highlights three relatively untouched recipes from the chef’s mother. These include dak jjim ($21), Korean chili-braised chicken thighs with potatoes and onions, kimchi jjigae ($19), a pork rib meat stew with soft tofu and aged kimchi and dolsot bibimbap ($18) with assorted grilled vegetables and bulgogi or tofu.
Anju’s Korean fried “chikin” ($16) with a spicy gochujang glaze and white barbecue sauce is one of the restaurant’s most photographed and reviewed dishes so I knew I wanted to order it before I even arrived.
It’s a simple dish, with black and white sesame seeds as the only additional topping. The dish came with four large pieces of chicken including two drumsticks and two breasts. The fry coating, unlike the kind used for American-style fried chicken, formed an extremely crunchy, thick and shell-like layer over the moist meat.
The gochujang glaze tasted prominently smoky but brought the addicting sweet and sticky elements I appreciate in Americanized Asian meat dishes. And the white barbecue sauce was as good as any I’ve had while growing up in the South. It tasted similar to the traditional Alabama-style white barbecue sauce which is mayonnaise-based with vinegar to add acidity and spices like white pepper and garlic powder to deepen the flavor.
At the end of my rather spicy meal, I enjoyed the cold and creamy berry yogurt gelato ($5) to cool off my mouth. With fresh berries sprinkled on top, this gelato was a smooth and satisfying dessert. You can also try the coconut and jujube cream pie ($9) with charred pineapple or the berry bingsoo ($9), a shaved ice dessert with various toppings like toasted almonds.
Anju’s menu also features beer like the kirin ichiban ($7) on draft and an extensive list of white, red and rosé wines.
To enjoy gourmet, re-imagined Korean dishes in a casual atmosphere, head to Anju.