Chiko co-founders Danny Lee and Scott Drewno wanted to do something completely new with the tasting menu at their award-winning Asian counter in Capitol Hill, which is to say they wanted to cook pancakes fit for a king.
The chefs debuted a new royal menu this week for their four-seat prix fixe, introducing two large format dishes — one Chinese and one Korean, of course — taken from the regal kitchens spanning as for back as the late 1300s. Both of the new dishes include an Asian wrapper.
“You’re basically taking things back centuries ago to what was served in the kind of palace era and the dynasties of each culture,” Lee says. “We thought it would be cool to slightly pay homage to that.”
Lee has designed a gujeolpan, a dish that translates to platter of nine treasures and was eaten during the days the Joseon dynasty. It comes in an octagonal black platter with chambers for eight chilled ingredients that are all intended to be eaten with a thin, flour-based crepe called miljeonbyeong. Lee says it has a spongy quality, which is why he compares it to Ethiopian injera.
The cold ingredients include avocados, cucumbers, egg strips, poached shitake mushrooms, poached shrimp marinated in kimchi puree, bulgogi, and mustard sauce. Lee says the idea is to for diners to mix and match however they like.
For Drewno’s contribution, he’s making something loyal Chiko customers have been pestering him about since he left the Source: a Peking duck that serves as the grand finale to the meal.
In the confines of Chiko’s tiny kitchen, Drewno knew he could never do ducks for a regular dinner service. They take three days to prepare and require constant observation during cooking. But making the Ming dynasty favorite is more feasible when he only has to worry about a few ducks per night for two seatings of the four-person meal (6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.).
“Doing two three ducks a day is not bad,” he says. “Peking Gourmet [Inn], they do like 1,000 ducks a week.”
Drewno starts the process by dipping the ducks in a mixture of palm sugar — a diversion from the traditional maltose — and diluted Chinese red vinegar. Then the ducks hang for three days. That lets the skin separate from the meat, which will help later with rendering the fat and crisping the exterior. Drewno blasts the duck at a high temperature and gradually lowers it, obsessively rotating trays to ensure an even cook.
“I’m kind of freaky about it,” Drewno admits.
For service, he presents the whole golden prize to diners, slices off the breast meat, and rolls them up in a wheat pancake along with a customized hoi sin sauce, a spicy orange marmalade, and mushu fillings (cabbage, onion, wok-fried egg).
Drewno takes back the dark meat and uses it to make an XO fried rice. To ensure nothing goes to waste, Drewno is experimenting with dehydrating the duck tongues to make a chicharron as a crispy topper for the rice.
The idea to make a royal menu started about a year ago, when Lee returned to South Korea for the first time in 20 years, and Drewno came along for his first visit to the country. They went to several museums that addressed the royal cuisine, which made Drewno think of the parallels in China.
Lee says several Korean restaurants still specialize in the dynasty style, and he would see the food pop up while streaming Korean TV shows such as Dae Jang Geum, or Jewel in the Palace.
Originally, Lee and Drewno were going to introduce the royal counter at their second D.C. location in Dupont Circle. They say that’s still a few weeks away from opening, and they decided they’ll start off serving the old “Eat the Menu” tasting service there as the venue finds its footing.
The original Chiko has been open for about a year and a half, so Lee says he felt it was time for them to shake things up a bit and expand on the style that led to wins for New Restaurant of the Year at the 2018 Rammy Awards and Game Changer of the Year from Eater D.C.
The royal dishes are only two components of the new tasting format, which makes its debut around the Chinese New Year but is intended to have a long run.
For $65, customers get a course of snacks such as banchan, crispy spring rolls, and chilled, marinated clams; the gujeolpan platter; a tray of dumplings and salads; a selection of Chiko’s greatest hits (orange-ish chicken, cumin lamb stir fry, Wagshal’s chopped brisket); and Drewno’s Peking duck. The dessert course is the one treat Chiko has always offered, a sesame custard with brulee fruit and a bitter sour orange sorbet.
“We definitely won’t have too little food,” Drewno says. “We never do that.”