Magpie and the Tiger’s Playful Humility
Petworth’s tiniest new restaurant serves up sweet Korean-American food
Despite the high-brow reputation they’ve managed to cultivate, coming to Magpie and the Tiger (828 Upshur St NW) feels like you’ve just walked into some stylish young parent’s living room. There’s no better word for it: the space is simply humble. As you approach, the restaurant is announced by a small, glowing tiger print quietly placed in the corner of the window. The dining room is tiny, with only 22 seats, and there’s an open kitchen in the corner casting bright light into the space. To make the atmosphere even more cozy, there are stuffed animals and cookbooks from a variety of cuisines piled on the shelves.
This fusion restaurant’s menu strongly features Korean-American food, but it’s not just Korean-American — there are also Japanese, Italian, and Indian flavors highlighted, along with other references. Clearly, all those cookbooks aren’t just for show.
My favorite dish was the goguma twigim, pictured above: a caramelized Korean sweet potato sitting in a frothy coconut broth, with some heat coming through from a topping of jalapeño peppers, pickled onions, and chili oil. I was astonished by the crunch that the kitchen got on this potato. It was moist inside and satisfyingly crisp on the outside, as if it had been fried in intense animal fat. (It wasn’t, for the record — this dish, along with several others on the menu, is vegan.) The broth provided the perfect canvas for beautiful droplets of color and flavor, and it was tinged with a coconut-y sweetness that worked well to counteract the heat of the peppers. We made sure to soak up every last drop.
Next up, we had the scallion focaccia di Recco — a truly marvelous fusion idea, mixing Italian bread and cheese with a Korean scallion pancake. I’m not sure whether ours came with cheese or prepared the vegan way, which is a shame. The focaccia was fine on its own, but truly transcendent when dipped in the honey chili crunch spread.
We also ordered the ganjang gejang, a gorgeous, raw blue crab that had been marinated in soy sauce until the meat inside became gummy. As our waitress informed us, the traditional way to eat this dish is by scavenging around in the shell with a small fork, mixing all that special orange roe with rice to infuse it with flavor, and then sucking the meat out of each individual leg. Although this dish looked and tasted incredible, I have to say that I was surprised by how little meat there was—although I got a subtle, refined flavor from the crab, it didn’t feel like I was actually ingesting any food at all.
The last plate to arrive was the yachae bokkum, a stir-fry situation combining pea tips with bok choy, all garnished with garlic dashi. When asked to describe it, our waiter said, “Umami, umami, umami.” Spot on: each bite packed a powerful, deep taste, brightened by the rice powder sprinkled atop it. I wished we could order three more of this plate.
We refrained from ordering any of the three larger dishes on offer, and we were unfortunately not entirely full at the end of the meal. It was hard to stop myself from ordering the lobster ginger-scallion guksu, which will be first on my list when I go back; the restaurant also has a fried chicken dish and a ribs dish that sells for an eye-popping $63.
My favorite part of the meal was the two perfect little butter cookies that they served us with our check. The playful, childlike side of Magpie and the Tiger comes out again here, with a cookie that tastes even better than it looks: dainty and crispy, the thin layer of dough had a perfect imprint of a shocked tiger face on it.
At the end of the day, Magpie and the Tiger is unique because they offer both outrageously good food and home-grown comfort. The food is stellar, if small-portioned; and the restaurant itself is playful and cutesy, while remaining elegant. Magpie and the Tiger walks the line of these contradictions with ease. Therefore, despite its pretensions, Magpie and the Tiger ultimately feels like a family eatery, or maybe even like coming home.