all photos: Shauna Alexander
The buzz around D.C.’s restaurant scene in the recent years seems to be going in three distinct directions: the special occasion (read: very to VERY expensive) tasting menu route, the wait-in-line-for-it-for-hours cool internationally inspired destination that has half the city clamoring for its dozen seats, or the fast casual build-your-meal-in-a-bowl experience.
But, what if (WHAT IF?) a restaurant opened that bridged the gap between these three models while still being affordable and adventurous and happened to have two of D.C.’s most loved chefs in the kitchen, cooking the food they always wanted to cook, but needed to open this kind of restaurant in order to be able to? Wouldn’t that be a cause for celebration?
Well, the great news is, as of July 7 there IS cause for celebration. Last weekend CHIKO opened its doors at 428 8th street SE, right in the heart of Barracks Row. The team behind it calls itself the Fried Rice Collective and is made out of Danny Lee (of Mandu), Scott Drewno (formerly of Wolfgang Puck’s The Source and two time Rammy winner for D.C. Chef of the Year) and Drew Kim (co-founder of Matchbox Group).
The destination is casual and relaxed (it previously housed a hot dog joint), no entree is over $20 bucks (with lots of dishes in the $8-$12 range) and you can basically “eat the menu” at the four seat chef counter for their $50 tasting menu. And while that requires a reservation, typically you can just roll up to the counter any time and order anything you want.
And, trust us, you’ll want everything on this Chinese Korean inspired menu (just don’t call it fusion).
On this weekend’s visit, some of the highlights (among highlights) of the tasting experience included: the Wagshal’s Brisket with a soy brined soft egg resting on top of rice, fukurike butter and long pickled Korean chilis, the Orange-ish chicken with candied mandarins and the Chilled Acorn Noodles which pack a healthy punch (and also have an egg on top, because everything should, really).
Drewno, whose dumpling game at The Source was the stuff of legend, gets to play around with some fun variations here (and we dare you to not slurb the kimchi soup after), as well as gets a chance to do some more down-and-dirty recipes that his white tablecloth past would not go for (the peel and eat shrimp was a meal highlight, and the catfish fried rice is done in collaboration with Ivy City Smokehous, and is comfort food defined).
Lee, in the meantime, takes his relationship with his Korean mother (Mama Lee is an integral part of the Mandu kitchen) and breaks away from it with a flair and a sense of humor. The menu calls for Limchi stew and when asked what his mother would say about that, Lee laughs. “The official answer is that we didn’t have enough K’s in the lettering set we ordered for the board. I don’t if that is really true or if my partners are torturing me with this, but we’re going with it.”Pro tip: The “PJGE GALES” you see listed below, are rice cakes.
That kind of energy spreads through your meal too. Typically, a tasting experience is one of those “we are in a theatre, please be quiet” performance pieces, and our party of three laughed, ate equal parts with chopsticks and hands, and just in general, had as great of a time as the kitchen is obviously having preparing the food.
And while the main dishes are an undeniable hit, what comes before and after is special too: the snack tray has potato salad, pickled cucumbers, and little clam bites that even our non-seafood-eating dinner companion slurped up with gusto.
And for after, the team collaborated with Dolcezza on a sour orange flavor that is complemented with basil seeds, fresh strawberries and candied almonds, that is a perfect finish to the sweet, salty, fermenty, crispy goodness that passed through your palate before.
As soon as the meal is over, you are ready for your next one.