Magpie and the Tiger restaurant review: A flair for flavor

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Deja vu is explained by the location, which was once home to chef Kevin Tien’s beloved Japanese-inspired Himitsu. Now it’s Magpie and the Tiger, co-owned by Tien and featuring a Korean screenplay by Caleb Jang. The chef, 29, helped Tien open Himitsu and is coming to his first solo concert of Moon Rabbit, Tien’s modern Vietnamese restaurant at the Wharf.

Jang knows how to cook. It’s evident the moment you receive his lightly salted salmon, well-marbled fish assembled with juicy diced Asian pear and brilliant Bordeaux radishes (aka Korean purple radishes) over a dashi broth spiked with kimchi jus. (A splash of lemon juice in the kitchen turns the pool magenta.) As I glided through the light and elegant first course, Curtis Mayfield sang “Move On Up” — fitting accompaniment to Jang’s resume.

Like many Koreans, Jang grew up eating sweet potatoes. At Magpie and the Tiger, he doesn’t just put the vegetable on a pedestal, he also throws a ticker parade at it. Hyperbola? Check out the jazzy toppings – pickled Fresno peppers, crispy baby onion rings, diced jalapeño – and join the fan club. Baked and fried, to caramelize the skin, the sweet potato is served on a black plate atop a shallow pool of coconut milk, lime juice, brown sugar and ginger syrup. Talk about Seoul food!

No one slavishly follows traditional recipes here. Korea is simply evoked with the restaurant’s bread dish, a cracker-style focaccia with a bubbling cheese center. Pastry chef Niko McGuigan stuffs the focaccia di recco with green onions, camembert and mozzarella. Pretty Italian, right? The nubby slices gain an Asian twist with a honey-sweet chili crunch that kicks the snack into a crowd-pleasing turf.

You might like a salad. Jang obliges with a concert of baby kale, mizuna, cucumber and pleasantly earthy acorn jelly. Honestly, I order the greens to get to the crispy filling: fried nori sheets spread with rice batter. No need for croutons when there’s keem-bugak.

The best location for kkanpunggi is a shiny tower of chicken pieces, covered in sesame seeds, transported from the kitchen to the restaurant. Jang’s wink at Chinese-Korean fried chicken in moist batter is smothered in a sauce that marries sweet with spiciness, pleasure with pain (hello, bell peppers, garlic, and homemade chili oil). If you’re looking to make the case for the merger, make it kkanpunggi.

Other large format dishes celebrate surf and turf. A nest of fluffy wheat noodles drizzled with ginger and scallions almost eclipses the sweet, sautéed lobster it supports. The show stopper is the kalbi – a marinated whole rib of beef, sous vide cooked for a day, grilled to add smokiness to the pleasure and glazed with a sweeter version of the marinade. Diners are tasked with tossing slices of heady meat into the accompanying red leaf lettuce, along with “umami” rice. Grains are rich and memorable thanks to a soy-dried egg yolk and a pantry of sauté entrees, soy sauce and ginger with garlic and Korean chili flakes.

McGuigan, 23 and a first-generation Filipino American, is working on a handful of desserts, including coconut cream puff and vegan rice pudding. At the moment, however, there is only one choice. Like bread, it does not signal Korea. Still, two or more of you should share the Ukrainian-inspired honey cake, seven layers of dulce de leche frosting alternating with eight layers of moist cake, flavored with a ginger-infused honey that is baked until that it is almost burnt. A monumental slice costs $9 – money well spent considering the proceeds go to the Ukrainian Red Cross.

While the physical dimensions of the newcomer are similar to those of Himitsu (and subsequent restaurant Pom Pom), a tiled bar, green color scheme, and new ceilings and floors give Magpie and the Tiger a distinctive look. The name refers to the Korean national bird, symbol of good fortune, and to the belief, stemming from folklore, of the protective nature of the tiger.

The servers, who check the status of vaccinations at the door, are lovely. An eagle-eyed attendant, having seen my March birth date on my driver’s license, included a candle and a birthday wish in a container of honey cake to take away.

Between their masks and the clamor in the room, however, attendants can be hard to hear. You may have to repeat all the questions, which many customers have had to adapt to during the pandemic. More difficult to understand is the wine list. The average price for a bottle is $74, which doesn’t exactly say “Hello, neighbour.” (The restaurant has a liquor license, but cocktails aren’t a current priority, the chef says. “We don’t have a bartender” or space to make drinks.)

Yes, Jang wants to make food that keeps people coming back for more. At the same time, he says he wants to elevate the way workers are treated in his industry: “I want to be part of the change.” The chef practices what he preaches by offering health insurance to full-time staff and four-day work weeks.

The checks are deposited in cookie jars that remind Jang of the legions of containers practical Korean mothers keep at home. As a child, the Chicago-area native says he could expect one of two things when he lifted the lid: cookies or sewing items. The chef dusts off memory at Magpie and the Tiger, where guests find spools of yarn with their beaks, but also delicate butter cookies on the side. Sweet times two.

828 Upshur Street NW. 202-882-2605. magpieandthetiger.com. Open: Indoor dining from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Price: Small plates $12 to $16, large plates $29 to $63. Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: The comfortable entrance and the small dining room are not suitable for wheelchair users. Pandemic protocols: diners are asked to show proof of vaccination and identification at the door; staff are vaccinated and masked.

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