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It’s been nearly nine years since Danny Lee and his mom Yesoon Lee first opened Korean restaurant Mandu on 18th Street NW. “We’re doing well, but every restaurant needs to self-evaluate and make changes as you get that old,” Danny Lee says.
So over the next several weeks, the menu and decor will get a reboot. Lee plans to gradually take away dishes and add new ones, so that by the end of September, he’ll have an almost completely new menu. He’s also collaborating with Cashion’s Eat Place and Pop’s SeaBar co-owner Justin Abad to revamp the front-of-house service. The K Street location of Mandu will remain the same.
First things first: About 10 or so menu staples will stay. “I think people would burn us down if we got rid of our bibimbap,” Lee says. There will still be mandu, or dumplings, too, but Lee is looking to offer some more unique fillings (like pork cheek, jowl, and shoulder) in slightly thicker housemade wrappers.
The rest of the revamped, condensed menu will feature new dishes every week. Appetizers will take some inspiration from Anju, a late-night pop-up that Lee used to host at his K Street location with guest chefs. “There will still be strong Korean flavors, but it will just be more creative and culinary wise. We’ll be pushing it a bit more,” Lee says. (He doesn’t classify it as fusion, “but I know that people are going to say it’s fusion.”)
Conversely, for the entrees, Lee wants to take the food “back to dynasty Korean country-style cooking.” One of the new menu staples will be gyeran jjim, a silky steamed egg custard. Lee will serve it with four different accompaniments—like seaweed, chili-oil toasted garlic chips, and diced shrimp—that will change week to week. Another highlight will be kalguksu, noodles that are folded into sheets, cut to order, then dropped in a broth. The soup will come with a rotation of different ingredients like pulled chicken, littleneck clams, or charred brisket. Lee is also interested in serving bossam, a pork dish served with various accompaniments and wrapped in leaves or lettuce. Instead of pork belly or pork shoulder, Lee wants to use jowl, which isn’t typically used as much in Korean cooking.
Lee also plans to change the style of service a bit with the help of Abad, who will remain an owner in Cashion’s Eat Place and Pop’s SeaBar but consulting at Mandu day to day over the coming months. “So many people come in here and automatically [say], ‘I want to the dolsot bibimbap.’ If we slow things down a bit, we can try to get them to experience different things,” Lee says. “I want to force people to try different things and widen their scope on the menu and Korean cooking in general.” The restaurant will also start closing between lunch and dinner.
“It’s about making the service a little bit more elegant as the food becomes more elegant,” Abad says. He’ll be training the staff on wine and beverage pairings as well as how to communicate the food in “palatable terminology.” “Instead of just taking down orders and refilling waters, there’ s more to my idea of what hospitality is, and I think Danny’s as well.”
Meanwhile, the decor will also get a bit of a facelift with the help of Lee’s wife, who’s an interior designer. The restaurant won’t shut down and reopen for a renovation. Rather, incremental changes—new lights at the bar, a closed-off private dining room—will be made gradually during off-hours.
As for Anju? Lee previously told Y&H that he wanted to find a permanent home for the pop-up. He still wants to do so—just not quite yet.
“So many people are expanding right now, and it’s really tempting to expand. The market’s hot. We get offers left and right for spaces,” Lee says. “But when I think about it, we’re still a family restaurant. It’s still my mom and I cooking… I’d rather concentrate on our first restaurant.”
This story was updated on Sept. 1 to include Abad’s involvement in Mandu’s makeover.
Photo by Scott Reitz