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The Flavors of ChiKo

May 19, 2018

By William Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse, Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C.

The Société Mondiale du Vin of the Bailliage of Greater Washington, D. C. enjoyed a most delicious and educational afternoon exploring the food and beverages of Korea and China at ChiKo on May 19.

Restaurateurs Danny Lee and Scott Drewno opened ChiKo – short for Chinese-Korean – to rave reviews in July 2017. It was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation's 2018 award for Best New Restaurant in the country, and the Washington Post featured it as one of the top ten restaurants in D.C. Located on "Barracks Row" near Eastern Market and the Marine Corps Barracks in Southwest, ChiKo elevates Asian cuisine in an informal, relaxed atmosphere.

Christian Choi – the "soju sommelier" at Mandu, Danny Lee's "homestyle Korean" restaurant on K Street – led members and guests on a fascinating and tasty journey through Asian food and drink.

The afternoon's beverages began with a sampling of Asian beers. First was Tsingtao from Qingdao, China. Tsingtao was founded in 1903 by German settlers in China and is now one of China's most popular beers, accounting for about 15% of the market. Tsingtao is a classic pale lager and is the most representative of Chinese beers. Second was Lucky Buddha from Qingdao Lake, China. This earthy, crisp Asian style lager was first brewed in 2010. Like Tsingtao, it includes rice in addition to the usual hops and malt. The third beer was Kloud from Seoul, South Korea. Kloud is a pilsner introduced in 2012, with over 50% German hops giving it its golden color and light taste.

Complementing the beer was a crispy chicken spring roll served with a hot Chinese mustard dipping sauce. ChiKo's spring roll is thin, perfectly crisp, and full of flavor.
With appetites whetted, the group move on to the national drink of Korea, Makkoli. Makkoli is a slightly effervescent fermented rice beverage that retains the rice's milky white color and, because it is unfiltered, has a substantive texture and mouthfeel. Makkoli has been brewed in Korea for over 2,000 years. Once viewed as "farmer's wine," it is now enjoying a resurgence of popularity for both its cultural tradition and health benefits – Makkoli has more probiotics than yogurt, and in the U.S. it must be labeled as a food under FDA guidelines. Christian explained that in Japan a similar fermented rice beverage is filtered to create sake.

A pork and kimchi potsticker was next from the kitchen. Christian noted that many culinary traditions have a version of the potsticker – gyoza in Japan, bao in China, and empanadas in Latin and South America and Spain, among others. ChiKo's was filled loosely with chili‑seasoned pork and house-made kimchi and is sautéed in butter. A snow pea shoot and kimchi garnish and sweet soy chili sauce complete this sophisticated interpretation of a classic dish.

A delicious soy-marinated avocado salad was a refreshing midpoint of the afternoon. ChiKo's creation included jicama, red onion, radish, and a soy chili vinaigrette. A crispy paper‑thin slice of Lotus root was a beautiful and tasty bit of crunch to complete the composition.

The group then proceeded to a study of soju. Soju is hugely popular in South Korea, outselling all other spirits combined. Like vodka, soju can be distilled from rice, wheat, barley or other starches, but as Christian noted, with its own distinct taste and rituals, soju is not simply Korean vodka – "soju is soju," he declared.
The tasting began with a straightforward soju, which despite its high alcohol content was incredibly smooth. Next was a white peach infused soju. This version was intensely peach flavored with a sweetness that nicely balanced the alcohol. A citrus-infused version was subtly flavored but just as delicious. The highlight of the soju tasting was an artisanal Andong soju from North Gyeongsang Province in South Korea. Soju has been made in Andong for well over 1,000 years. The group tasted a 21-year old soju whose bottle had been inspired by that of Remy Martin cognac. This impressive soju was wonderful both neat and on the rocks.

Double-fried chicken wings were perfect with the soju, and ChiKo's are no ordinary wings! They are brined for 24 hours and covered with an Asian rub that included salt, sesame, and green chili, before being dredged in potato starch and fried. After a rest, they are fried a second time to create amazing crispiness. The result is the ultimate wing – crispy, moist, and flavorful.

The final treat from the kitchen was ChiKo's sophisticated version of fried rice. In Asia, fried rice is often a breakfast food – leftover rice fried with egg. But ChiKo takes its version to an entirely new level. The rice is flavored and colored with squid ink and loaded with smoked blue catfish from the Chesapeake Bay, with grated bonito and egg yolk. Blue catfish is an invasive species, so by harvesting and eating it, ChiKo and its diners are not only indulging in a delicious dish, they are helping the ecology of the Bay.

ChiKo's superb Asian fare, a wide range of familiar and new libations, Christian Choi's expertise, and Danny Lee's creativity in the kitchen combined to make it an enlightening and fun afternoon. All left with a deeper appreciation of the flavors and traditions of Korea and China.

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