Picture this: a tasting-menu restaurant where you get seven courses for $60. In this economic climate? If anything, it sounds like big-city stuff, the type of meal you might luck into in an undiscovered corner of Los Angeles. But it’s in an Annandale strip mall with ample parking. I’m talking about Incheon Restaurant, the fusion eatery that has sprung from the imagination of 34-year-old chef Justin Ahn.
Ahn may have named his restaurant with managing partner Brandon Kim after the city that’s host to Korea’s biggest airport, but don’t mistake Incheon for a Korean restaurant. “I happen to be cooking Korean food right now,” he’ll correct customers. “I’m a big proponent of being beige,” he continues. “It’s the best thing to be right now. Why don’t we all just become beige? That’s how I cook.”
Though Ahn was born in Korea (since opening the restaurant, he learned that his parents shared their first home together in the city of Incheon), his family moved to the Los Angeles area when he was a year old. Ahn says that he’s inspired by the multicultural influences he soaked up living in LA until he moved to DC after college to work on the Hill.
After nearly a decade in government, he was already transitioning to the private sector when a health crisis pushed him to change paths. “I ended up putting everything on hold for a year and a half,” Ahn recalls. He got his groove back, as he puts it, with a managerial role at a friend’s restaurant. Kim signed a lease a year ago on the Annandale space that was once a rowdy bar, but it wasn’t until this March that he and Ahn shook hands on a deal to collaborate.
Ahn’s oeuvre owes more than a little to his West Coast roots. “I learned early on that no one group or one person has ownership over anything,” he says. That means that while his current menu may be Korean-inspired, dishes take influences from literally all over the map. His plates touch down everywhere from flyover-state America (he cooks a mean potato hash, which he tops with braised short ribs and an over-easy egg) to Italy.
Diners who love the steamed egg that comes throbbing and hissing to the table at Korean barbecue restaurants will either be thrilled or perplexed by Ahn’s version. His Jjim (dishes have a single Korean word as their names, to indicate what to expect—in this case, a steamed dish) breaks from tradition with its calm entrance and silken body that calls to mind Japanese chawanmushi. Ahn tops it with raw onions and prik nam pla, a tangy, spicy Thai chile–flecked vinegar sauce. It’s not a showy dish, but diners will know immediately that they are in for something more cerebral than the norm.
Ahn loosely adheres to Korean tradition in determining the order of his dishes, so the short-rib “breakfast” and steamed egg are followed by something that he describes as a “salad.” It’s actually a fresh take on bibimbap, at least on the surface. Crisp veggies, including chrysanthemum greens, onions, cucumber, and carrots, form a laurel around finely chopped and disarmingly sweet canned whelks. The sea snails are a nod to golbaengi-muchim, a spicy whelk salad served with thin rice noodles. Ahn’s version uses elastic jjolmyeon, a type of noodle that he learned was created in Incheon. His sauce isn’t as spicy or vinegary as the classic, but its balance still compels a diner to finish the whole bowl.
Another highlight is one of Ahn’s least Korean dishes. The guee is a simple slab of New York strip that allows him to show his expertise with an immersion circulator. After he sous-vides the steak, “I sear the hell out of it,” he says. “No one else gets to touch the steak.” The result is one of the more ideal examples of the Maillard reaction one will find. A rosy center that’s edged with a crisp crust is drizzled with a garlicky parsley sauce that’s spiced with Thai bird chiles. The Korean touch? It’s served over a sticky purée of Korean sweet potatoes.
One will find other classic iterations of bossam in Annandale’s K-Town, but the usually shareable pork-belly dish is scaled down at Incheon with just a few cabbage leaves and halved perilla leaves in which to wrap the supple, adipose mini slabs. Ahn gets to show off his more traditional skills (he calls Korean cuisine “not mundane but a norm” to him) with a pile of spicy, sesame-topped pickled radish and chunky walnut ssamjang intended to be added to the wraps.
One of the most interesting ideas on the menu is, in practice, the least appealing. Ahn’s take on juk, or Korean rice porridge, is actually risotto, complete with merit-worthy al dente Arborio rice. It would be a cheesy delight if not for the fishy funk of unpleasantly chewy abalone. It’s a welcome reference to traditional juk, but the large portion was more than I wanted.
This is representative of a trend at Incheon. As Ahn puts it, “We didn’t want it to be too stuffy. I’m not going to put foam and flowers on my food.” This lack of stuffiness can mean that plating sometimes feels a bit clunky. For a group of two, each dish is served in a shareable portion on a single plate. Personally, I would prefer for each person to get their own mini version.
This may be in part due to the skeleton crew with which Ahn and Kim are working—just them and two other people, as of press time. That translates to a restaurant that isn’t being run exactly as Ahn would like, he says. For example, he hopes to expand beyond serving just three days a week. The service itself will also get a spit shine when they’re able to hire more people.
And the kitchen? “We want a lot more international flair,” says Ahn. He plans a “phase two” to take off around the holiday season, featuring more non-Korean food. But for now, Incheon provides a talented upstart with an excellent launchpad for following his culinary dreams.
7118 Columbia Pike, Annandale
See This: The sleek, spare dining room gets some greenery from faux plants that line the area above the central table, but most of the color is on the plates.
Eat This: Jjim, HaeMul, GuEe
Tasting menu: $60
Open Thursday through Saturday for dinner; reservations only
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior