Sliding into one of the four seats right on top of the frenetic kitchen at Eater DC’s editor’s choice for Game Changer of the Year remains the most exciting way to experience most of what modern Asian eatery Chiko has to offer.
But co-founder Danny Lee wants everyone to know that it’s not the only way to be a part of Capitol Hill’s experimental dinner spot.
“People call and say they want a reservation for the chef’s counter because they think that’s the only way to get in. We’re predominantly a walk-in restaurant,” Lee says.
Patrons’ obsession with the exclusive kitchen counter isn’t surprising, given that those pieces of prime real estate are the only seats privy to an insanely cheap tasting menu ($50 per person) that guides customers through most of the foods prepared at a former hot dog stand that now spins out innovative takes on Chinese and Korean cooking.
Freewheeling Chiko is a major twist in the careers of the hospitality vets behind parent company the Fried Rice Collective. Lee’s family has been running sit-down Korean restaurant Mandu for over a decade — the original Dupont Circle location remains closed due to a fire; an offshoot in Mt. Vernon Triangle keeps doing its thing — while co-founder Scott Drewno racked up local dining awards and made believers out of dumpling aficionados during his tenure at fine dining destination the Source. No longer constrained by corporate policies or allegiances to any single cuisine, the co-chefs have embraced their newfound freedom by cooking food that’s funky, fresh, and incredibly engaging.
“The plan was to have fun,” Lee says. “It’s really rewarding to see all our hard work being appreciated.”
One of the things Lee is most pleased about is that other chefs want in on the action. The restaurant’s “After Dark” series, which opens up the tightly knit kitchen to culinary professionals cool with trying new things, debuted with pop-up enthusiast and Lucky Buns founder Alex McCoy.
“He came in for dinner and we talked to him about it. After that it just kind of grew,” Lee says.
Chiko has since welcomed guest stars from all over, including industry leaders from Hawaii, Los Angeles, and New York City, as well as pioneering locals. Restaurateur Peter Chang and Tibetan dumpling maker Lobsang Dorjee Tsering recently pitched in on a special brunch celebrating Chinese new year. Top Chef alum Sheldon Simeon asked if he could cook for a night while in town for an event at the Smithsonian. Next up: Korean restaurateur and fellow Eater award winner Edward Lee is scheduled to mix things up at Chiko on Friday, April 13.
Meanwhile, Lee and Drewno continue to make their own fun.
Lee says the core menu remains roughly the same, but stresses that individual dishes are reconfigured each season. For instance, the smoked catfish woven into a fried rice dish has been accompanied by corn, peas, and squash, depending on what was readily available. During the winter, Lee says they married wok-fried shrimp seasoned with XO sauce to Korean porridge so diners could have some comfort food to cling to.
They have also added chicken spring rolls, switched from crab to braised duck in the dumpling soup, and continue tweaking dishes here and there.
“We love being creative,” Lee says. Not that necessarily means everything has to be fiddled with. He billed the spiced chicken with candied oranges, slow-cooked brisket with furikake butter, and radish-avocado salad as most likely to stay around indefinitely.
No matter what appears on the menu board, Lee says customers can always expect to find dishes “that still only take minutes to cook from start to finish.”
If eating just about everything on the menu at one sitting remains a top priority, Lee offers this bit of intel: Reservations for the two nightly seatings (6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) at the kitchen counter are released one month in advance right at midnight. They tend to go fast, but he says cancellations provide opportunities vigilant customers can exploit to book same-day visits.
Lee adds that those who’ve dined at the counter before needn’t worry about hunting for alternatives the next time they pop in. Lee says when repeat guests resurface in the system, he and Drewno review the dishes they were served the last time around and make adjustments accordingly.
“We’ll come up with something just a little bit different so it’s not Groundhog Day for them,” he says.
Unless, of course, that’s specifically why they have returned. “Some guests request the exact same thing,” Lee says.
As for sticking to this one thing, Lee says that Team Chiko is not at all interested in rushing into anything else. “A lot of people like to expand as soon as they can. We’re going to be very careful,” he tells Eater.
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