[I] admit it: I assumed “Anju” — the name of Julian Armstrong and Gary Kim’s innovative Asian restaurant in Kittery Foreside — meant “pear.” Not only is the restaurant’s logo a pear, but the word also sounds a lot like “Anjou,” a European variety of pears. Plus, given the menu, which draws from a variety of Asian cuisines, I couldn’t help comparing Anju Noodle Bar to the restaurants in chef David Chang’s empire, Momofuku, which means “lucky peach” in Japanese.
But I was wrong.
“‘Anju’ is actually a Korean word used to describe food that is best to eat while drinking booze,” Kim explained recently. A glance at the menu showed me Anju Noodle Bar lives up to its name. A case in point: few dishes pair better with a cold bottle of Txakolina (a slightly effervescent white wine from the Basque region) than salty, sweet, crunchy, and savory okonomiyaki (a Japanese pancake topped with poached shrimp, pork belly, and scallions) or steamed pork buns with kimchi mayo.
Minimally decorated, with neutral colors and lots of natural light, Anju seems to have been designed to show off its bold, vivid dishes. At under 30 seats, the dining area is largely occupied by a bar that wraps around a small, open kitchen with little more than some induction burners and a convection oven. The only other cooking source, a steam kettle used for making stock, is found downstairs.
“We like this setup,” said Armstrong, “because it allows us to freely interact with all of our customers while maintaining a full lay of the land, so to speak.”
Although both Kim and Armstrong are comfortable behind the line, the kitchen is generally Kim’s realm, while Armstrong focuses on the beverage program and the front of the house. His wine list is far reaching — which Armstrong accomplished in this tiny space by retaining small quantities of each selection — and was clearly created with the menu in mind. Wines with a high level of acidity — like Mosel’s zippy Spätlese Riesling or Emilia-Romagna’s spritzy Lambrusco — are optimal accompaniments to Anju’s rich, spicy broths and sauces. The list includes a smattering of crowd pleasers from California, but the lion’s share of bottles are from Europe or are European inspired, like the beautiful, crisp Müller-Thurgau, made with the white German grape of the same name by Oregon vineyard Anne Amie. Equal care has gone into the beer and cider menus, which feature eclectic producers like Jolly Pumpkin from Michigan and Etienne DuPont from Normandy. To go with lunch, I looked to the extensive selection of kombucha — funky, lightly effervescent fermented teas — and landed on a wild-blueberry brew from Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland.
Anju offers the same menu at lunch and dinner, organized into small, medium, and main plates. I started my meal with the unagi bun — a steamed roll folded around broiled freshwater eel glazed with wasabi tare and topped with beet-cured ginger, pickled radish, and sliced avocado. The flavors worked well together, and the pickled radish and ginger added a nice contrasting crunch to the otherwise soft ingredients and tender bun.
Krapow gai balls, another small-plate offering, are a twist on traditional Thai ground chicken and hot basil — chicken meatballs are flavored with fish sauce and palm sugar and served with a creamy herb aioli, fresh green chilis, and fried shallots. A side dish of spicy kimchi (the house specialty) acted as a kind of palate cleanser (while simultaneously making me crave another bite of meatball).
Shrimp toast, from the medium plates menu, is made with bread from nearby Lil’s Bakery. Shrimp pâté is seared onto toast and topped with strips of prosciutto di Parma and a mound of fresh herbs. The result is reminiscent of a Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich, with the cooling texture and aromatics of the herbs balancing the aggressive saltiness, though a small dot of basil oil off to the side of my plate seemed like a bit of an afterthought.
For my main course, I went with the spicy miso ramen. The broth, a pleasant balance of salt and spice, was so rich that it clung to the hosomen, a thin, chewy type of udon noodle. The ground pork was a bit dry, but that was alleviated by the piquant kimchi garnish and the insanely decadent soft-boiled egg marinated in soy, mirin, and sake.
If a restaurant offers only one dessert, it’s a safe bet it will be delicious. Anju’s matcha white-chocolate cheesecake does not disappoint. Mine was less dense than most cheesecake, more like key lime pie in its silky texture, but the flavor was still intense. Brightening up the dish was candied Buddha’s hand citron and Buddha’s hand syrup.
Kittery’s bourgeoning, vibrant restaurant scene has been getting a lot of attention recently, and Anju is one more reason to check it out. “We call our food ‘free-style Asian,’ because we don’t want to be pigeonholed into any particular regional cuisine,” Kim said. “We want to offer the kind of the food that one previously needed to travel south to Boston to eat.”