G I LC H R I ST
Heralded by a mega-blast of social media and the spicy waft of chili-rich gochujang sauce in the air, Anju reopened a few days ago.
Now happily ensconced on the northeast corner of 4th Street and 17th Avenue S.W. (344 — 17 Avenue S.W., 403-460-3341) after a hiatus of almost 14 months, Roy Oh’s modern Korean restaurant is pulling back its many followers.
Oh and wife Anh Au opened the original Anju early in 2009 in a refurbished house hidden among the condo towers of downtown Calgary. Only the sheer determination of the young couple kept Anju open for the first couple of years; the creative menu was too non-traditional for many Korean food fans and too unusual for those looking for a more subtle style.
But slowly, culinary aficionados flocked to Anju, declaring its gochujang-bathed chicken wings to be the best in town and the crispy tofu to be a near-religious experience.
The word spread and Anju gained an almost cult-like following. (Check out #AnjuEffect on Twitter and Instagram for more detail.) But the awkward location continued to be a problem, so when his lease came up, Oh opted to close and shift to another space.
He looked at a few options but kept returning to the 4th Street corner. It’s an L-shaped room with windows south and west and the option of a good-sized deck onto 17th Avenue. But it has a checkered past. It had been a successful restaurant spot for many years — the home of Il Giardino — but came up for lease when the owners retired.
At about the same time, Petite, a popular — and tiny at 28 seats — 10th Avenue restaurant, suffered a fire and opted to move in. The food was good but renos left the space disjointed and sterile and the room proved too large and unwieldy for Petite’s personalized cuisine. It closed short of a year.
So how does Anju keep from repeating that scenario? Oh has been studious about his changes. He spent the past year working in restaurants such as Model Milk to learn more about food production and running larger kitchens. In Anju 1.0, the tiny kitchen held him and one other cook. He knew he’d need a much larger staff wherever he landed.
So, Oh partnered with Victor Choy’s Concorde Group to handle construction and management. In recent years, Choy has broadened from his original collection of bars and nightclubs (the National Beer Halls, the Locals, the Republik, and so on) into an eclectic list of restaurants (Sky 360, Palomino, the Double Zeros, Clive Burger, Model Milk, and more). Anju seems like a logical fit.
Choy and Oh pulled in RAD Architecture, a local group that designed the Nationals, Clive Burger, Model Milk and the Double Zeros. They solved some of the space problems by knocking down walls, creating a unifying design and incorporating a light Korean motif. The room now has character that’s fresh, open and contemporary; nothing is overpowering.
The open kitchen remains where it had been but has been refitted to serve the needs of Oh’s food.
For Anju devotees, the crispy tofu ($14) and gochujang (a condiment made with red chilies and fermented soybeans) chicken wings ($14) are back, as is the dolsot bibimbap (hot stone rice bowl, $14) and the yam fries ($9). Oh melds flavours of Korea with global ingredients to create a gochugaru (red chili powder)braised and caramel-glazed sablefish ($16) and gochujang- and Parmesan-topped baked oysters ($16).
The menu is broken into sections of Hwae (raw), Twigin (deep-fried, crispy goodness), Anju (spicy, salty drinking foods), Banchan (veggies and sides) and large format dishes. Most of the dishes are smaller — anju translates as Korean small plates meant for sharing and to be had with alcohol — so you can try a number of things at one meal.
Anju has a long list of wine, beer and cocktails plus a halfdozen brands of soju, the distilled “national drink” of Korea, to facilitate the drinking part of the meal.
So the new Anju seems well conceived and response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Anju 2.0 promises to be one of the hottest restaurants in Calgary this fall.
One other Anju note: Parking is free and abundant in the parking lot behind its building after 5 p.m. and on weekends.