Friday, December 26, 2014

Anjou

The former beauty supply store has been transformed into a handsome bi-level restaurant and sake lounge. (Photo: Gerald S. Williams)
The former beauty supply store has been transformed into a handsome bi-level restaurant and sake lounge. (Photo: Gerald S. Williams)
It's about time Old City got hip to bi bim bap.

This staple of Korean home cooking, a hearty bowl of rice topped with a colorful pinwheel of vegetables, sauteed beef, and a bull's-eye of fried egg, is easy to find if you know where to look. Just follow the aroma of grilling short ribs to neighborhoods in Olney and Upper Darby, where Korean immigrants have been lighting barbecue fires beneath their tabletop grills since the late 1970s.

I've even enjoyed a tasty bi bim bap laced with the earthy sweet spice of gochu jang chile paste in a Voorhees strip mall at Ritz Seafood, perhaps the area's first restaurant to meld Korean flavors with contemporary ideas.

But all has been quiet on the kimchee front in Old City, a main stage for food trends that has welcomed everything from a fantasy Havana (Cuba Libre) to a nouveau Indian bistro (Cafe Spice) and more than its share of other Asian fusions.

The arrival of Anjou brings a glimmer of hope to those of us craving Seoul food and sushi in restaurant/lounge land.

"We wanted to ride the [Old City] wave," concedes owner Daniel Kim, who spent two years transforming Beauty World, his family's beauty supply shop, into a handsome bi-level restaurant and sake lounge. "We wanted to represent Korean and Japanese food in a Western way."

The rich oak-and-granite room has tapped into a typical Old City crowd, a hoity-toity blend of Main Line foodies and monied college kids dressed in gravity-defying bodysuits who seem to flock to any outpost advertising sushi and sake (both of which, by the way, Anjou does well).

But when it came to choosing the menu's Korean dishes, Kim and partner Daniel Lee opted for mainstream accessibility over the high spice of more authentic flavors. As a result, there is still no kimchee perfuming lower Market Street with the potent tang of pickled cabbage. That side dish, a mainstay of most meals in Korea, is kept strictly in the back for those who ask.

"You want authentic? We can do authentic," Kim insists.

But the menu has plenty of intriguing examples of Korean-lite cooking, traditional dishes conceived by chef Yang Soon Jang that go easy on the garlic and chiles.

The result - when all goes well - is a series of flavors that tease the taste buds with the patented Korean combo of sweetness and nutty sesame spice but don't burn your mouth.

The fiery rice cakes, for example, look and taste a little like springy Korean gnocchi bathed in a blush of chile sauce that leaves a lingering warmth. A similar sauce glazes the pork, which appears both on a kabob and as a generous portion of chops.

The tofu soup may have been the spiciest item on the menu, but it was addictive. The peppery broth was filled with strands of crunchy enoki mushrooms and swirls of slippery noodles.

But the best of Anjou's fare comes from the meat-loving tradition of Korean barbecue, which highlights the complexity of sweet, tangy marinades rather than chile heat. Jang's gingery soy marinade, which takes several weeks to ferment, infuses the thin slices of meat used for the kalbi (flame-grilled short ribs) and the bul go ki (stir-fried beef with onions). Both dishes were excellent, though I missed the pleasure of grilling the kalbi table-side myself, as is typical at Korean barbecue restaurants.

I also missed the traditional fried egg atop the bi bim bap, which was presented in a modish white bowl topped with beef, enoki mushrooms, and ribbons of egg crepe. But once I added a few daring spoonfuls of gochu jang, the bowl was transformed into a powerhouse of pleasure.

The excellent Anjou steak was a fine example of the restaurant's Japanese fusion. The succulent grilled rib eye arrived napped with fabulous wasabi-spiked gravy filled with orange-capped nameko mushrooms.

Sushi chef Dong Nguyen offers a respectable, if slightly predictable, sushi menu with excellent specials such as the buttery seared bonito and the sweet live scallop. I also loved the vinegar-marinated sunomono seafood salad and the tuna tataki, which brought seared rectangles of pristine fish served with a gingery soy dip.

Yet, for all its promising flavors, Anjou is struggling with inconsistencies in the kitchen and dining room.

On the Korean side of the menu, the stir-fried jap chae, an appetizer of rice noodles and julienned vegetables, was tepid and far too dry. The otherwise appealing chile-glazed pork chops were overcooked. On the Japanese menu, several sushi rolls were wrapped too loosely and fell apart. The toro (tuna belly) tartare was a one-dimensional imitation of the dynamic dish popularized locally at Morimoto, where Nguyen worked before coming to Anjou. The sake-scented dumplings were pasty inside.

The pricey teriyaki seafood platter had two problems: far too much sauce and a dredging in rice flour that turned soggy and slipped off the scallops and salmon like jellied skin.

Had it been served hot, I might have noticed these flaws less. But many of the dishes we tried on our second visit were barely warm, especially the soft-shell crab tempura and the tiger-shrimp udon-noodle soup.

They may have been prepared long before we ordered, or more likely they sat in the kitchen window a while before our server noticed them. He hadn't stopped by our table since delivering a bottle of sake at the start of the meal - and we had to pour it ourselves. But he did seem quite busy chatting up a woman at the bar 10 feet away.

Such blatant inattentiveness wasn't typical of the rest of the service staff, who had been pleasant and on the ball the first time we dined at Anjou. But at the end of that second visit, the waiter lost our goodwill for good with an infuriating ruse.

Paying our check, we discovered he'd given himself a 20 percent tip - calculated on the tax as well as on food and drinks.

When questioned, he argued that 15 percent was no longer the standard. And the fact that we were a party of four didn't matter (restaurants typically add in a tip only for larger groups), because at Anjou, he said, any tab over $200 triggered an automatic gratuity.

Funny, my previous $200-plus meal there hadn't cued the automatic tip. And Kim would say later in a telephone interview that Anjou adds no such penalty for big spenders. So maybe it was a computer error - or our server got greedy.

None of the managers bothered to apologize after the auto-tip was removed from our check. And that's a shame. So much about Anjou defies the stereotypes of Old City's dining scene that I'd rather have left savoring the better taste of bi bim bap.

Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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